When I first moved to England, I was overwhelmed by everything. I wanted to fit in so badly that I never questioned any cultural habits I was adopting. Now my family back home mock my mannerisms, calling me “one of them”. I guess I have integrated very well!
This realisation was revisited last month when my mum and aunt visited my family home in England and I saw them struggle with two of the most abused words in English in the UK – “Thank You” and “Sorry”.
Saying thank you and sorry to people here is a routine thing, whereas in India those two words are never used so loosely. In fact, if you say sorry to someone who just took money from you for your purchase, you are sure to get told off or laughed upon. It isn’t because Indians are impolite, but because somehow there is more value to those words than I can explain in words. They are not formalities.
In my lifetime, I have rarely said thank you to my mum but now I expect my children to thank me when I put food on the table for them. So when this time my mum and aunt visited me, they observed and tried to absorb the English culture as much as they could. They kept thanking me for cooking, for taking them out, etc.
Now this gesture would mean nothing or nothing in the sense that it won’t grab my special emotional attention if it came from an Englishman because I know it is a routine thing. But when my mum and aunt did it, it struck me quite strongly how awkward it is between us to thank each other (they fed me all my life and now they are thanking me? Oh please, I am ashamed!) and how much effort it takes from their part to simply say those words.
Now I use the term, “abuse” after careful consideration. I think these words are being abused because when we are taught English, an appropriate response to “thank you” is often “don’t mention it” or most commonly used in India is “You are welcome”. Also, a natural response to “Sorry” is either “That’s ok” or “Oh don’t be”.
In contrast, people in England respond to thank you and sorry with another thank you and sorry. So to explain this further: one awkward experience we had at the supermarket with my mum was when my mum stood at the entrance waiting for me to get the trolley. A man totally engrossed in conversation with his spouse (I assume) came from behind and accidentally pushed pass my mum. Of course, he was English and polite so he said sorry. My mum’s instinct was to say, “Oh that’s ok”. And the disgust on the man’s face was unforgettable. My mum was obviously confused.
I explained her that an appropriate response to sorry is strangely a sorry. And then I faced a look of disgust on my mum’s face. She is an English teacher back home and this was utterly unacceptable fact. But she went with it for the rest of the trip as she believes in integrating like me.
Going back to the Indian culture. We are very intimate people and we rely on family and friends for our day to day needs. We often operate on a barter system of love and affection expressed very physically in the form of feeding someone, teaching someone, looking after them or simply welcoming someone in your intimate space which could be your home or heart. Saying thank you makes things very formal, and within Indian households formalities have no place because formalities are for outsiders. Hence, thanking your relative for feeding you could almost offend them or baffle them.
There is also this hierarchy system that rules us. We believe in mutually accepted roles and obligations. It is understood that it is a parent’s duty to feed, clothed and love their children, and it is a child’s responsibility to maintain their pride. If all those things are in tune, we are good. There is no need for thank you(s) or sorry(s).
In India, finishing a plateful of food that was served to you is a big thank you to the person who cooked (hence not finishing food is considered very disrespectful), wearing that pretty dress your husband brought you with elegance and pride is thanking him for buying you the dress and finishing your studies and standing on your feet is a big thank you to your parents for looking after you all these years. It is all emotional and not formal.
Having said all of that, I love English culture. I love the fact that they say “I love you” so easily without any awkwardness. Those are the three words that can never be abused no matter how or how often you use them. In India, we don’t even say I love you to our parents and loved ones so easily. Love is to be felt and expressed not told or imposed. I am sure the western influence is changing that notion now but when I was a kid, we never said that to our family. But I love the liberty I feel in saying I love you to my lovely children and husband every day, numerous amounts of time. I love to see my husband’s eyes lit up every time I say it to him and my children melt in my arms with warmth and a sense of security. It is simply marvellous!
Lastly, a very big thank you for reading my post (and I hope to see some appropriate responses to that).