Thank you. You might be welcome …


Do we say thanks too much? “Thank you” (or the appropriate equivalent — eg. thanks, tah, cheers, merci, etc.) tends to be said more frequently in some cultures — especially in English-speaking countries — than in others; many would argue that utterances of thanks and gratitude are dished out so habitually and gratuitously in England and the U.S. that the sincerity of the sentiment is often diminished.

The Chinese rarely say thank you to their family and close friends. And because they value humility, saying “thank you” after being paid a compliment can be perceived as arrogant. In Thailand, gratitude is generally conveyed using the “wai”, a gesture of hands clasped together as in prayer, which varies according to the social status of the person being thanked, and sometimes simply a smile will suffice; a verbal “thank you” is reserved for important actions that warrant sincere and special gratitude. The Nepalese have no words that translate directly to thank you or please; they adjust or conjugate their pronouns and verbs (much like the way the French use vous or tu) to reflect the level of respect they wish to convey, but don’t have dedicated “polite” words. (Similarly, most Scandinavian countries — certainly Danish, Finnish and Icelandic — don’t have an actual word for please.)

As for acknowledging thanks, the nature of the verbal response also varies from culture to culture and language to language, and seems to fall into three general categories. The first amounts to dismissing the act that inspired the thanks as unimportant or non-existent. The French say de rien, the Portuguese de nada, in Catalan, it’s de res — all translating roughly to “it’s nothing”. Then there’s almost the opposite: an expression of pleasure on the part of the person being thanked. The Dutch phrase graag gedaan translates literally as “gladly done”; when the Icelandic say gerdu svo vel, they mean “my pleasure”. And finally there’s a fairly common tradition of echoing back the word for please when you’re acknowledging an expression of gratitude. In Hebrew, Russian and a number of Eastern European languages, the way you say “you’re welcome” is by using the word for please. In Russia, it’s пожалуйста” (“pah-zhal-stah”); the Polish dual-purpose word is prosze; in Hebrew, it’s bevakasha.

In British and American English, we tend to use variations on the first two types of expression. An Englishman, if he does verbalize a response, is more likely to offer “of course”, “don’t mention it”, “it was nothing”, “by all means”, “no problem”, “no worries” (very common in Australian English), “that’s OK”, “that’s all right”, “my pleasure”, or “not at all”. The traditional “you’re welcome” is more of an American phenomenon. In fact, since the British have a habit of thanking everyone for the smallest and most trivial actions (they give thanks almost as much as they apologize), they’re less inclined to acknowledge all the gratitude being doled out — and therefore a nod or a smile, with deliberate eye-contact (which in itself is enough to make most English folk blush), will usually do the trick. The Americans are more conscientious (they will usually offer a verbal reply), less self-conscious and more effusive with their “you’re welcomes”, and common alternatives are “sure”, “sure thing”, or, even more informally, “you bet” — or “you betcha!”. That’s something you won’t hear an Englishman say.

Last year, Lynneguist on her blog Separated by a Common Language wrote a detailed and nuanced post comparing American and English usage of please, thank you and other general terms and expressions of politeness (a video of her TEDx talk on the subject at Sussex University accompanies the piece). It’s well worth a read to understand some of the more subtle differences in manners — both linguistic and social — between the Yanks and the Brits.

Here are a few international versions of “you’re welcome”, with their literal translations where I’ve managed to track them down:

Brazilian/Portuguese: de nada, “of nothing”

Catalan: de res,  “it’s nothing”

Cantonese: M̀h’sái haak-hei, “not necessary”

Danish: selv tak, “thanks yourself”

Dutch: graag gedaan, “gladly done”

Finnish: ole hyvä

French: de rien, “it’s nothing”

German: Bitte schoen, “please pretty”

Hebrew: bevakasha, “please”

Hungarian: nincs mit, “nothing”

Icelandic: gerdu svo vel, “my pleasure” or “there you go”

Italian: prego, “I beg”

Japanese: dou itashimashite

Norwegian: bare hyggelig, “my pleasure”

Polish: prosze, “please”

Russian: pohzhalstah, “please”

Slovenian: prosim, “please”

Spanish: de nada, “it’s nothing”, or mi gusto, “my pleasure”

Swedish: varsagod, “be so good”

Tagalog: walang anuman, “no problems”




Italian: Prego


2 thoughts on “Thank you. You might be welcome …

  1. Fay

    It’s funny to listen into us as a family paying for our goods at a walmart store on the first few days of arriving in the U.S each visit. Thank you we will say and it’s only the amount of you’re welcomes we generate that makes us realise we might just say Thank you a tad too much. By the end of the transaction the cashier is feeling a little hoarse and we feel more than a little silly.

  2. Brian Barder

    A Brit like myself paying for goods in a New York store will probably say ‘Thank you” or just “Thanks” four or even five times during the processes of handing over the goods, offering the money or credit card, watching the goods being wrapped, receiving the credit card machine and handing it back, receiving the receipt and finally receiving the wrapped goods. The slightly baffled response of “You’re welcome,” or “You’re very welcome” each and every time is a reminder that I’m over-doing the gratitude, and there’s often a note of obvious relief in the (equally meaningless) parting instruction to “Have a nice day” (sometimes “Now you-all have a really nice day, y’hear me?”), virtually never heard in the UK even now.

    One postscript: British television presenters and interviewers increasingly tend to dismiss their interlocutor at the end of the interview with an increasingly lengthy expression of grovelling gratitude: “Well, that’s all we have time for, unfortunately, Dave, and thank you so much for coming on the program[me] this morning and talking to us: David Beckham, ladies and gentlemen!” Sometime this seems mainly intended to give the presenter time to find her place in her notes or on her laptop prompter to remind herself what she’s supposed to do next.

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