Thank You, No Thank You: Russian and American Thanking Routines

Yelena Belyaeva Standen, Saint Louis University

Expressing gratitude is considered to be one of the universals of interpersonal communication, in particular in realization of the politeness principle. However, studies in cross-cultural pragmatics clearly revealed that there are culture-specific differences in realization of this speech act (Coulmas, F. 1981, Wierzbicka 1991, Tsurikova 2001).

This paper explores the social conventions associated with expressing gratitude by Russians and Americans. The goal is to compare the forms and strategies used by Russians and Americans in various communicative situations and give a tentative outline of the cultural scenarios and values that determine similarities and differences between the two communicative routines. I will also show how the difference in cultural values affects mutual perception of the Russian and American communicants. First, I will review the basic assumptions about expressing gratitude and then, specify the details about the use of ‘thank you’ in English and ‘spasibo’ in Russian in three types of communicative situations in which the Russian and American norms for using ‘thank you’ and ‘spasibo’ clash: at home, at work, and in public. In conclusion, we will present tentative cultural scenarios of expressing gratitude based of the ethnographic interviews with Russian and American natives speakers.

The research is based on the following theoretical assumptions:

Thanking is classified as an expressive speech act that can be defined as an expression of gratitude on the part of the speaker to the addressee whose past or future act benefits the speaker (Searle 1976:12). Sincerity of the expressed feeling of gratitude is considered a constitutive condition of this speech act. In pragmatic linguistics, thanking is referred to as a non-threatening convivial speech act, which can be modified by using strategies maximizing its illocutionary force and in this way maximizing its politeness (Leech 1983). Depending on whether the sincerity condition constitutes a communicative focus of the utterance or not, further distinction can be made between two types of thanking: emphatic, i.e. expressing sincere gratitude to the benefactor, and phatic, i.e. an automatic response in highly standardized situations (Tsurikova 2001:149-150). Moreover, thanking can be used as a discourse marker in the function of the conversation closing or offer acceptance. Our analysis of thanking in a larger cultural perspective with regard to social situations, strategies and the responses favored by native Russian and American speakers revealed similarities of the use of emphatic thanks. On the other hand, there are considerable differences between the Russian and American standards of communicative behavior in cases of phatic thanking and in the use of thanks as a discourse marker. Ethnographic interviews with the Russian speakers of English and the American speakers of Russian who had been exposed to the alternative culture and life style indicate that cognitive and cultural scripts of the native culture create certain expectations, and if these expectations are not fulfilled, they cause negative perception of other peoples’ speech behavior as non-standard, unnatural, or ‘weird’, ‘queer’, ‘bizarre’.