This post was written by Sarah Rees
Every morning and every afternoon, I board a little bus that transports me and a gaggle of fellow building dwellers to and from the office. I am the only Westerner on the bus and I am also, invariably, the only one who says thank you to the driver when we clamber off.
That is not to say locals are rude. People are generally very helpful and friendly here in Malaysia; if you look a little bewildered people tend to help rather than scurry past as so many do in Europe (usually because their heads are bowed under umbrellas or against a biting wind). Service in hotels is attentive and friendly, with genuine warmth seeming to exist behind the polite nods and murmurs, and I am always impressed to see people jumping out of their train seats to offer the place to a pregnant woman or an old person.
But then… how can we overlook the fact that people drive with complete lack of consideration for any other person on the road, and the simple “thank you” does, I am increasingly noticing, get forgotten more often than not.
Unlike the mind-boggling stupid driving decisions that infuriate those behind the wheel no matter their nationality, the absence of “thank you” goes unremarked. In fact, actually saying “thank you” tends to prompt more of a response.
I usually get a giggle from the train ticket lady when I thank her for topping up my card, or when I thank the man who sells me warm chickpeas on my way home from work. Bus drivers shoot me a dark look when I sing “terima kasih” to them as I alight, and the maintenance man who scurries up to fix my door just shrugs away my gratitude with disinterest.
But I just can’t not say thank you; it tumbles out without me knowing. From the moment I could talk I was instructed to use the t-word; sweets and treats were not released from the generous hand until the phrase slipped out, however rushed and insincere it sounded. Thank-you letters had to be written for every birthday present received (how I loathed that chore as a youngster) and, in time, “thank you” became an automatic response to anything – it could be a Christmas present or an exam paper, a bowl of food, or a coat hanger. It is a word I sprinkle in my sentences without even thinking about it, as natural as a blink and as necessary as napkins for spaghetti.
In the UK, even the grumpiest, nastiest people will say thank you, even if their words and thoughts drip with the opposite sentiment. This may make the whole thing entirely obsolete, but it speaks volumes about British society, and the way we are conditioned to use that little phrase at whatever cost.
That said, you can see why I am finding life in Malaysia a threat to my former fall-back position. My politeness system has been thrown into confusion, and I no longer know when and where and why I should use my reliable phrase. Perhaps, like chilli padi, it should be used more sparingly than previous applications. I try to follow the crowd, but even that doesn’t seem to have rationality. My colleagues thank me when I do something, but don’t thank the server for bringing them lunch; both are doing their jobs, but only one of us gets gratitude? I suppose waiters are paid for their service in the good old “plus plus” charges, while I don’t get paid for being the marvelous worker I am (or try to be).
In an effort to break the habit of a lifetime, I clambered off my bus the other day without saying thank you to the driver – he had, incidentally, driven like a loon and sent my tea time snack belly flopping around my tummy on the race down the hill. But, alas, by the time I had walked two paces from the vehicle I felt guilty. Why shouldn’t he get those little words of gratitude for transporting me to the station, thus making my journey home so much easier than it could have been? My brain swirled with regret, with that childish guilt that comes with smashing a mug and hiding it, unnoticed in the bin.
I wanted to rush back, assure him that his act was appreciated, but my feet were already away and the bus had slid off to wherever it went to sleep. Tomorrow, I vowed, I would thank him heartily, and never again deter from my path of overusing the “t” word because, really, who would ever be offended by a little extra gratitude?
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