Growing up in the United States, one of the first things I remember being taught by my parents was saying “please” and “thank you.” For many Westerners (Americans in particular), saying “thank you” is one of those taken-for-granted niceties of daily life. We say it everywhere we go: to cashiers, restaurant servers, and even to the bus drivers taking us from point A to point B in our cities. At least half of the time, people may not even hear or acknowledge us, but we say it anyway.

These days, many organizations’ email code of conduct specify that saying “thank you” is expected when someone fulfills a request, even if doing so is in their job description. Why? Because we think it is basic good manners to show appreciation for a job well done. A recent article in The Atlantic called “I Never Thanked My Parents for Anything” will make you think deeply about the true cultural meaning behind the seemingly innocuous phrase.

Deepak Singh, a North Indian immigrant to the United States, gives a cross-cultural perspective on a fascinating nuanced difference between India and the US. In India, saying “thank you” is not taken lightly and if said in the wrong context, can be insulting and insincere. According to Singh, when someone is thanked in India, it implies a sincere debt of gratitude for going above and beyond the call of duty. For everyday transactions, expressing thanks verbally is not necessary because “In the Hindi language, in everyday gestures and culture, there is an unspoken understanding of gratitude,” says Singh.

Contrast this to American culture, where “thank you” could signify the end of a transaction. Sometimes, an American doesn’t say thank you for expressing gratitude but instead to end an interaction. Saying “Thank you for coming to my home” can really mean, “It’s been great visiting, but I’m done and would like you to leave.”

Now that Singh has been in the United States for so long, he finds that saying “thank you” is second nature. But this has also gotten him in trouble while visiting family in India. One time he thanked his uncle for hosting him in his home and was met with an expression of disgust and disappointment. There was no need to say it because to do so was a violation of the intimacy of the relationship. In India, the assumption is that family and friends are kind to each other because it is expected. Assuming otherwise cheapens the gesture.

So how does this apply in a business context? If we shouldn't say “thank you” to our Indian colleagues and clients, what is the appropriate Indian business etiquette? How can Westerners express our appreciation for them? Here are a few tips from CultureWizard Country Profiles:

  • Tipping is expected in India.  Show your appreciation by tipping all service people like wait staff, bellhops, and cab drivers.
  • Use the greeting, “Namaste” which basically means, “I salute you” but also has the deeper spiritual meaning of "The divinity within me salutes the divinity within you."
  • Listen carefully when someone is speaking and don’t interrupt them.
  • Instead of thanking someone for doing something for you, offer to reciprocate and then do it.

What would you add to this list? How do you express appreciation in India?

Would you like to learn more about working with Indian colleagues, clients, or direct reports? Click to download our Working With India webinar recording.

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