Americans say thanks a lot, but other cultures may have a deeper understanding of gratitude.
If you’re trying to become happier, you’ve probably heard the advice to practice gratitude. “Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change people’s lives,” writes pioneering researcher Robert Emmons in his book Thanks! His studies suggest that gratitude can improve our health and relationships—making it one of the most well-studied and effective ways to increase our well-being in life.
They are studying how children and adults worldwide naturally say thank you, and whether we can teach them to enhance their gratitude skills.
But there’s a problem with prescribing gratitude to everyone: Most of what we know about it comes from studying Americans—and, specifically, the mainly white American college students from the campuses where researchers work. That creates a cultural bias in the science, and that’s why more and more researchers are exploring what gratitude looks and feels like in a range of cultures. They are studying how children and adults worldwide naturally say thank you, and whether we can teach them to enhance their gratitude skills. The findings tell us something about a fundamental human experience—appreciating the kind things that other people do for us—and they offer insights into how we can spread gratitude around a diverse world.
The different ways we say thanks
Jonathan Tudge, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is perhaps the foremost expert on cultural differences in gratitude. When he first started exploring the topic ten years ago, he found virtually no existing research. Last year, Tudge and his colleagues published a series of studies examining how gratitude develops in children across seven very different countries: the United States, Brazil, Guatemala, Turkey, Russia, China, and South Korea. They found some similarities across cultures, as well as some differences—an initial glimpse at how our early steps toward gratefulness might be shaped by larger societal forces.
First, they asked a group of children from seven to 14 years old, “What is your greatest wish?” and “What would you do for the person who granted you that wish?” Then, they grouped the kids’ answers into three categories:
- Verbal gratitude: Saying thank you in some way.
- Concrete gratitude: Reciprocating with something the child likes, such as offering the person some candy or a toy.
- Connective gratitude: Reciprocating with something the wish-granter would like, such as friendship or help.
In general, as you might expect, children were less likely to respond with concrete gratitude as they got older. Younger and older kids expressed verbal gratitude at similar rates—although there were exceptions to these trends. (Brazilian children showed more verbal gratitude as they got older, while concrete gratitude didn’t decline with age in Guatemala and China—where it was fairly rare, to begin with). And as children grew older, they expressed more connective gratitude in the United States, China, and Brazil.
Despite these age-related similarities, there were still differences between countries. Overall, children in China and South Korea tended to favor connective gratitude, while kids in the United States leaned toward concrete gratitude. Children in Guatemala—where it’s common to say “Thanks be to God” in everyday speech—were particularly partial to verbal gratitude. Such variations in how children respond to kindness may set the stage for how they talk, act, and feel when they get older—and other research does find that adults give thanks differently worldwide.
In one study, Vajiheh Ahar and Abbas Eslami-Rasekh asked American and Iranian college students what they would say if they received different types of help, like someone holding a door, carrying their luggage, fixing their computer, or writing them a recommendation letter. The researchers observed a number of differences between the students’ responses in the two countries. The Americans were more likely than the Iranians to simply say thank you, compliment the person (“What a gentleman!”), or promise compensation (“If you ever need anything, let me know”). Indeed, other research suggests that Americans (and Italians, too) are inveterate thankers, expressing gratitude in many everyday situations when people from other cultures simply do not. Meanwhile, the Iranian students used a variety of different strategies, depending on what the favor was and whether their helper had higher status than them (something that Malaysians take into account, as well). In particular, they were more likely than the Americans to acknowledge the favor (“You did me a great favor”), apologize (“Sorry”), or ask God to reward the person.
Clearly, gratitude comes in different flavors—and it seems that the roots of these variations begin in childhood.
How culture shapes our thanks
So why don’t we all express gratitude in the same way?
Cultural values, parenting practices, and education may each play a role. If you’re an American adult, you might remember gluing together pasta ornaments or painting hand-shaped turkeys as holiday gifts for your parents, a form of the concrete gratitude that is so common among U.S. kids.