My challenge with saying thank you

The first word that I learned here in Tamil Nadu happened to be “nandri” and since then, I received various reactions from locals when I pronounced this word, which gave me the urge to look deeper into its use. A local Tamil from the village Kuilapalayam taught me how to say “thank you” in his mother tongue. I enjoyed using it until my first evening in Pondicherry, outside of Auroville. As the only tourist in a tiny, modest restaurant where I was having dinner with two local friends, it caught my eye that I was the only one who kept saying “nandri” to the waiter. Later on, as the waiter was posing a plate of dosa on our table, my friend softly tilted his head from left to right. I immediately recognized that gesture: the famous Indian head shake. During the following week, I observed locals doing the Indian head shake in different contexts and realized that it carries more than one meaning. The Indian head shake simply suggests that the person acknowledges the action or word of the other, but it can imply different responses. If someone pours you a drink, doing the Indian head shake would tell the person to stop, as “that is enough” in a certain way. If someone asks permission to go to the bathroom, on the other hand, the same gesture would mean “yes, go ahead”. The same gesture can also mean “thank you” in a given situation like between a customer and a waiter.

Hoping to seem less touristy, I started using the gesture instead of saying “nandri”, but this did not last for a long time either. On my second week here, while I was out having a drink with an Indian friend, he saw me doing the gesture and started laughing at me. I shared my confusion about the ways of thanking people but his only explanation was: “You do not have to thank the waiter; it is his job to do so. You thank God.” His thought first made me question if Indians cared about being polite with each other, but when I gave more thought to it, I remembered quite a contrasting experience that I had in France. Four years ago in Paris, I took the bus and bought a ticket from the driver. As I had to move towards the back of the bus in a hurry to let other people at the station get in too, I forgot to thank the driver. Suddenly, in a very brutal and severe tone, the driver grabbed my arm, looked me in the eyes and said: “On dit merci?” (We say thank you?). Without even thinking about it for a microsecond, I apologized and thanked him. As I was moving forward, all I could hear was my heartbeat: I felt ashamed of what I did not do. Yet, I wondered if the French driver’s behavior was justified.

Being polite requires love and compassion for the other, rather than being civilized. Thanking someone should come from the heart and not the rules of society. Most importantly, being thankful to someone cannot be fully translated by the simple pronunciation of a word. Whereas the Western culture suggests using the “thank you” word like the air that we breathe in, as if it was given, as if it was free, I wonder if the word is not losing its sense. We came from a University in Europe to spend a whole month in the South of India to study communication and sustainable development. While we observe situations with an ethnographic eye, I wonder if every idea that we perceive as “developed” should be reflected on the Eastern culture. Is the Western way always the best way?

Here the use of “thank you” as a cultural, communicational and linguistic aspect is to be seen as an example, in order to expand the same view on how we imagine sustainable development. While studying development, one should always remember to keep a certain balance in his thoughts: the “West”, recognized as the carrier of Reason, technology, and civilization, should also learn from the “East”. Sustainability is about both giving and receiving, investment and impact. Whether it is moral or material investment, social or economic impact, sustainable development is the achievement of a great balance. The idea of Development with a capital D should therefore stand at the midpoint of the “West” and the “East”, in order for both to potentially benefit from it.

-A student from Istanbul.

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