Turkey day is just around the corner! Let's be honest, at the mention of the holiday, you're more likely to be thinking of succulent turkey and dressing, tangy cranberry sauce, savory casseroles and gooey pies than about thankfulness, right? Don't worry, me too. I'm thinking longingly about broccoli and rice casserole right now. It's okay, there's always time to be grateful for what you have. Thankfulness doesn't have to be centered around a silly holiday. In fact, Thanksgiving as we know it is sort of a strange holiday to the rest of the world. It's very American. Canada celebrates Thanksgiving as well, in October, but no other countries anywhere celebrate Thanksgiving.
And we all know from elementary history classes that the reason Thanksgiving is celebrated in North America is because Native Americans helped struggling white settlers from across the pond survive in "the new world." Now, I'm one of those history nutters who would spend a whole day blowing out hot air about how that's not how it happened, but I don't want to suck the fun out of the holiday for anyone, and my rants about early American history tend to get a bit heated and negative. You don't want to read through me pining about all of the culture that was destroyed as America came to be. I'm not here to regurgitate what you were taught in grade school history, and I'm not here to ruin your day with strong thoughts on where Columbus can shove it. Let's avoid those overdone standard paths of "the history of Thanksgiving," and "what are you thankful for" shall we? And opt, as usual, for a path less traveled.
With Thanksgiving approaching, and it being such an uncommon concept for the rest of the world, I want to explore expressions of gratitude from around the world.
China: Xiexie (pronounced "Shi-eh shi-eh")
In Chinese culture, there are social rules and norms that westerners see as complicated. Navigating conversations and making new friendships can be confusing in China for someone from the western world. Guanxi is a common concept referring to building, having, and maintaining status with an inner circle of friends, family and colleagues. It is uncommon to seek a favor from someone with whom you do not have guanxi. Keqi is the concept of guest behavior. If courtesies are being extended to you, it is your duty to be polite and follow social rules. It is arrogant to talk about yourself a lot with guests or as a guest. This breaks keqi. The delicate concept of Surface harmony is also important among those with whom you have guanxi. Saying a flat "no" to an invitation or a task or favor is considered incredibly rude, and breaks surface harmony. To politely decline, softer phrases are used, such as simply saying that the requested action would be inconvenient. Almost none of these social constructs apply to those with whom one does not have guanxi, it is not rude in China to bump into a stranger and not apologize to them.
Under the surface of some of the more basic elements of social rules for Chinese culture, there are even more intricacies for interacting and showing gratitude. If you are at a banquet or other special occasion where you are being fed, you must leave a little something on your plate for each course, or the host will think that you are still hungry and it will be their duty to keep giving you more food. While at table eating, sticking your chopsticks to rest standing up in a bowl of rice is bad manners and an omen of death. It is considered a polite compliment to burp however loudly you wish after a meal. It signifies that you liked the food and you are appropriately full and satisfied. If you wish to thank your host for their hospitality, gift giving is very big in Chinese culture, but it is another social concept that can be tricky. Never give clocks, or any gifts that are black or white. These are associated with death. Do not give shoes or food as gifts (small food gifts are okay, like a serving of cookies or fudge wrapped up, and drinks such as teas or alcohol are usually acceptable) as these can imply that you think the giftee is struggling with poverty. Never give a book or an umbrella as a gift either, as these are bad luck because the actions of giving them are homonyms in Chinese for severing relationships. And lastly, never give a green hat as a gift, and to be on the safe side, avoid green gifts altogether. A green hat symbolizes adultery. Finally, gifts are more of a private thing in Chinese culture. It is polite to open gifts alone, away from public, so do not be offended when the recipient doesn't open your gift in front of you.
Russia: спасибо or spasibo. (Pronounced "spi-see-buh")
In Russia, hospitality and gift giving are very big culturally. If you visit Russia and meet locals, it is highly likely that you will be invited to someone's home for dinner. While the more western Russian culture does not have the same sort of strict hierarchy and social rules as Chinese culture, there are still some interesting idiosyncrasies that could make for a dire (or hilarious) social faux pas.
If you are invited to someone's home for dinner, you are expected to bring gifts to show thanks as a gracious guest. Alcohol is most acceptable, but it is frowned upon to bring vodka because it is so common and widely available. Bringing vodka as a gift for your Russian hosts would imply that you are not trying and do not appreciate them. Russian culture is very big on gift giving to show appreciation, and the more thought you put into a gift and the more grand it is, the better. Small and cheap gifts are insulting, so avoid giving gifts like key chains and pencils. Unlike in China, food gifts like chocolates are appreciated in Russia. It is also a good idea to bring flowers for the women of the household if you are going to dinner. But, avoid red flowers, as these are a symbol of strong affection or an admission of love. Yikes! You wouldn't want to give someone's wife red flowers if you were meeting her for the first time. It is also considered thoughtful to bring small gifts for the children of the household, but is not always expected. If you do bring gifts for children, they will most likely not be opened in front of you, while gifts for adults will be so that you can see how much they appreciate them.
Saudi Arabia and Arab nations: Shukran
In Arabic culture, honor is very important and insults and criticism are taken very seriously. To be a gracious guest is to show respect.
In Islamic culture, there are many, many cultural social expectations. Women do not usually introduce themselves or shake hands. Men are not permitted to speak to women to whom they have not been introduced. Never offer a left hand for a handshake. The left hand is considered unclean, and to offer it is an insult. When greeting someone, placing your right hand on your heart and giving a slight bow is a sign of respect. This body language can also mean "thank you in the name of Allah," if you close your eyes when you bow your head slightly.
In conversation, admitting "I don't know" is crass in Islamic culture and can come off as insulting.
When socializing, keep in mind that the concept of personal space is not at all the same as in western cultures. It can be offensive to lean or step away from someone who may be too close for your comfort.
When you have guests, it is rude not to offer snack food. If you are a guest, accept snacks offered only after politely refusing the first offer.
If you are a dinner guest, leaving some food on your plate is considered a compliment and a sign of wealth. Also, you are not expected to linger after dinner. The dinner and conversation during should be the highlight of the evening.
Giving gifts to show gratitude is appreciated but really not expected. If you do choose to bring gifts to meetings or for a host, gifts must be wrapped, and never ever give alcohol as a gift. Alcohol is forbidden in the Islamic religion. Your gifts will not be opened in front of you.
I found all of this information in this handy dandy cultural intelligence handbook for US soldiers, and my favorite quote from it was from a section talking about how important oral tradition and socialization through talking is in the culture: "Arabs love poetry and creative speech. They are fond of bestowing flowery blessings and colorful swearing."
These are just a taste of some ways to show gratitude in other parts of the world. I've barely scratched the surface, and I got so absorbed in research that I ran face first into my deadline. If you are curious about more, I encourage you sate your curiosity with some light google research. You do have most of the world's knowledge in your pocket and at your fingertips, after all. In fact, here are some more to get you started: Italy, Botswana, Scotland, and the Philippines. the Italy article is my favorite, the tone is so matter-of-fact in the best of ways.