Thanks in Indonesia? No Thanks!

In Indonesia, saying “thank you” too often can cause offence. Linguistics expert Dr. Tim Hassall from the Faculty of Asian Studies at The Australian National University in Canberra explains how this custom often catches Australians out

CANBERRA, Australia ~ On my first trip to Indonesia, 20 years ago, I arrived in the village of Ubud in Bali and was sitting in my losmen (hostel). Two young hotel maids came in, and started making up the beds. I said, “Terima kasih” (thank you). One of them mimicked mockingly to her friend in an irritated tone, “Terima kasih, terima kasih.” The message, it seemed, was, “Thank you, thank you – that’s all these foreigners ever say.”

Even since then I’ve noticed how hard it is for Australians to thank properly in Indonesian. The form is easy – you can just say terima kasih, or more informally, makasih. The big problem is knowing when to do it. And most Australians do it too often, causing awkwardness or even offence.

Indonesians use terima kasih and makasih only sparingly. When someone performs a routine service for someone else, they are often not thanked for it. In such situations, if you feel tempted to say terima kasih, you should try to replace it with some other way of acknowledgement, such as a nod.

Why do they thank sparingly? This seems to be linked to traditional values. Most Indonesians, especially Javanese, have a firm sense of social hierarchy and of status differences. So they are unlikely to thank a person of lower status in many everyday situations as they regard that person to be simply carrying out his or her social obligations.

Also important is the great value placed upon group membership and communality. It creates a feeling that you should do certain things for others without receiving formal acknowledgement, simply because you all belong to the same group. And so thanking someone you know well can at times seem aloof and create offence. At which times? Unfortunately it’s hard to say. You have to feel your way here, and might sometimes choose to convey your gratitude indirectly, for example by expressing pleasure or relief, rather than by uttering the formula terima kasih.

Australians thank each other a great deal in everyday situations. It makes little difference who has the higher status or whether the service is big or small – we just thank anyway. And often we even do it repeatedly, so that a routine encounter between a shopkeeper and customer turns into a litany of murmured thanks.

This is probably to do with cultural values as well. Australian society has a strong egalitarian ethos – so striking that one observer, Anna Wierzbicka, calls it “super-egalitarianism.” It makes us feel that people are not obliged to perform services for us by virtue of their social position or rank. As a result, we tend to explicitly acknowledge everything that is done for us by anyone, by thanking them. What’s more, we tend to transfer these habits into Indonesian.

But Indonesians are starting to thank each other more often, too. This is especially true among educated city dwellers. And as George Quinn has remarked, it seems to be due to Anglo-American influence. For one thing, the traditional values that work against thanking are losing their sway. Social relations are becoming less hierarchical, and at the same time are becoming more impersonal. This is especially so among the highly educated, urban elite. As these people become more like Anglo-Americans in their cultural outlook, they have started to adopt western thanking habits.

Indonesians are heavily exposed to Anglo-American thanking practices as well. For example in American TV dramas and movies, the characters say “thanks” and “thank you” to each other constantly. This is translated faithfully in the subtitles each time as terima kasih, so Indonesian viewers see characters saying terima kasih to each other constantly when they watch TV. This also helps to change people’s speech habits.

For learners who feel nervous about this, here is a “cheat” ploy. Thanking with the word thanks tends to get a very good reception in Indonesia, perhaps because people feel flattered when you speak English to them. And when you say thanks, you are temporarily behaving in a foreign way, not an Indonesian way, so your thanking is not judged by native norms. That means that however silly terima kasih would have sounded, your thanks probably won’t bother a soul.

Of course this strategy has a drawback: it simply sidesteps the important task of learning to use terima kasih in an appropriate way. But as a backup strategy for difficult moments, it can be useful.

Excerpted from “Do learners thank too much in Indonesian?” by Dr. Tim Hassall, in the Australian Review of Applied Linguistics. It is reproduced with kind permission from the editor.

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