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.
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.
Americans tend to be very individualistic, in contrast with collectivist cultures that put much more emphasis on the social group. This is an important distinction, because (despite their underrepresentation in gratitude research) 85 percent of the world’s population lives in cultures that researchers deem as more collectivist. In such cultures, people put greater emphasis on harmony and honoring others—values that would support the connective gratitude we see more in China and South Korea, which pays back kindness with things others might actually want. In fact, one study found that the more respect Chinese children show to parents, the more grateful they are.
But Tudge and others have argued that separating societies into individualist vs. collectivist is too broad, reducing the colorful diversity of the world to two rigid categories. Instead, they prefer to consider at least two other dimensions of culture: autonomy/heteronomy and separateness/relatedness.
In autonomous cultures, children are taught to be more independent and self-directed, whereas children in heteronomous cultures learn the duty to be obedient to parents and elders. Cultures that emphasize relatedness put greater value on connecting with others and developing relationships, which is less important to those that value separateness.
These two dimensions can be crossed to yield four different types of cultures. Under this (still admittedly simplistic) schema, countries like the U.S. would be described as autonomous-separate, whereas rural areas in developing countries would be heteronomous-related, researchers posit. But urban areas in developing countries, like China or India, would tend to be more autonomous-related, as big cities offer a competitive environment where people can pursue more education and opportunities for themselves.
Theoretically, these autonomous-related societies would be the ones that are most supportive of authentic gratitude, since people would want to strengthen their relationships but would do so freely rather than out of a sense of obligation. True gratitude, after all, is not the polite thank you uttered to avoid seeming rude but a genuine wish to pay back the undeserved blessings you receive.
Who benefits from gratitude practices?
So far, we’ve looked at how children and adults in different societies naturally develop and express gratitude. But what happens when you try to teach people to be more grateful?
This was the question behind a 2011 study where researchers invited Anglo-Americans and Asian Americans to try writing gratitude letters to their friends and family. Each week, some people wrote for 10 minutes about their appreciation, and others (as a comparison) simply wrote about what they had done that week. They also reported how satisfied they were with life.
After six weeks of gratitude, the Anglo Americans saw a boost in their well-being—as previous research would have predicted. But the Asian Americans did not; their satisfaction with life barely changed.
Similar studies have found that Indian and Taiwanese participants don’t feel more grateful and South Korean students get a smaller well-being boost after writing gratitude letters, compared to their American counterparts.
Why don’t Asian and Asian American participants see the same benefit from this practice?
Expressing appreciation for other people’s help may generate more mixed emotions for them, like indebtedness, guilt, and regret. In a recent study led by Liudmila Titova, for example, Indians who wrote about their gratitude did feel more positive emotions, but they also felt more guilt and sadness—feelings absent in Anglo Americans. The guilt they carried was mirrored in their writings, which more often talked about feeling in debt. For example, one person wrote, “[The] only thing which always pulls me down is that I could have given some gift as a token of gratitude.”
Researcher Acacia Parks, who coauthored that study and various others on gratitude, has heard from some Asian-American students that expressing thanks is uncomfortable because it attracts attention to them. One student even reported that her parents were insulted by her gratitude letter—as if it implied that she didn’t expect them to be so generous.
“Giving and receiving help is an expected part of daily life for members of collectivist cultures, rather than an uplifting surprise, as may be the case for those from individualist cultures,” write researcher Lilian J. Shin and her colleagues in their forthcoming study.
Gratitude’s unexplored territory
Based on these mixed results, one might be tempted to conclude that gratitude is just not as important for Asian cultures. But recall that young Chinese and South Korean children are particularly skilled at connective gratitude, which goes beyond polite words to reciprocate in a way that is meaningful to the helper—the closest to authentic gratitude that kids can come, according to Tudge. And the culture of Asian cities should be supportive of gratitude. Might this all suggest that, in fact, gratitude comes more naturally to Asians than to others?
We can’t say for sure. It’s likely that we don’t understand the best ways to teach or even show gratitude in different cultural contexts yet. For example, “cultures as varied as the Japanese, the Inuit, and the Tamils of South India have developed entirely different ways of dealing with the receipt of gifts,” explain researcher Dan Wang and his colleagues. They write:
Saying ‘thank you’ is the polite thing to do in the United States but, whereas it is incumbent on the Japanese to repay a gift with one of at least equal value, receiving meat after a hunt is not viewed as requiring gratitude among the Inuit, and although the Tamils find it easy to express their thanks nonverbally, it is much more difficult to do so verbally.
Researchers in that 2011 study touted gratitude letters as a self-improvement exercise—to boost your mental and physical health. But this pitch may be less appealing outside of American culture, with its strong emphasis on chasing personal goals and taking control of your life. That’s why researchers are so careful about how they advertise an experiment—because they know that what people expect can influence their motivation, effort, and perception of its results. If gratitude had been sold as a way to strengthen relationships, might those same students have seen different outcomes?
Another complication is that those few experiments all asked people to write gratitude letters, which simply might not be the ideal way to show gratitude in all cultures. Or it might matter whom we choose to express our gratitude toward. In the study where Indians felt more guilty, they were more likely to spontaneously focus their appreciation on people outside their family and even strangers—the kinds of people whom they might feel obligated to repay for going out of their way to help.
To reduce these niggling negative feelings, Titova and her colleagues suggest that people from more collectivist cultures could be guided to think about the help they receive in a different way. “It might be possible to stave off indebtedness by encouraging participants to think of the target of their letter as having given their gifts freely, not expecting anything in return,” they write.
What’s clear is that gratitude deeply intersects with a culture’s attitude about the self and its relation to others. Are we individuals forging our own paths, or members of a larger whole? That belief may vary from person to person; cultures are not monolithic. When children in the U.S. say that their greatest wish is for someone else’s well-being, their gratitude tends to become less concrete and self-focused and more connective and relationship-promoting.
Gratitude is, after all, ultimately a skill that strengthens our relationships—and it arises when we pay more attention to our relationships and all the gifts they bring us. “At a time when the society seems to be more about me me me, we really need to get people thinking about connections,” says Tudge.
For Tudge, that means thinking about gratitude less like a good feeling to boost your happiness score—and more like a moral virtue: a repayment and paying it forward of kindness that are part of being a good human being. Continuing to study cultures beyond the United States—ones that acknowledge just how much our lives are enriched by our interdependence with others—may help us get at this deeper and more complex understanding of gratitude. Then, we can learn how to make it a way of life, however different our lives may be.
BY KIRA M. NEWMAN