January 27, 1998
Con mucho gusto
You can learn a lot about a culture from the politeness of its people. For example, you can learn how polite its people are.
Every culture and every language has various formal customs for addressing common situations that call for humans to interact in a manner slightly different from their instinctive, pre-civilized urges. When a man meets a woman, for example, most of us have learned to smile and shake hands. This is a fairly universal form of greeting, that we have learned over the centuries is more acceptable than our ancestors' practice of sniffing each others' butts.
One of the most interesting elements of cultural politesse is the manner in which people respond to gratitude. This is something we don't think about much, because it's so deeply ingrained in our subconscious. You say "Thank you," I say "You're welcome". Well, that's typically American, don't you think? Naturally if I did something for you or gave you something, you're welcome to it. I'm merely stating the obvious.
Some Americans have fallen into the habit of saying "You're welcome, I'm sure," as if the decision as to whether you're welcome to their generosity isn't exactly theirs to make. Others, and I'm afraid I sometimes fall into this category, simply respond to "Thank you" with a grunted "Yup!" That's about as ungracious as it can get: I'm not even reaffirming your right to my good deed, I'm actually just acknowledging that, yes, I did do something selfless for you, and now you pretty much owe me one.
Americans also sometimes say "Don't mention it". This is intended to downplay the significance of what we've done, ostensibly to remove the sense of obligation you might have to return our kindness. However, it's also just ambiguous enough that it could mean other things, such as "Don't talk about it, show me how thankful you are!"
People in most other cultures are far more giving of themselves than Americans. Spending a couple of weeks in Latin America has reinforced this impression. Spanish speaking peoples, for example, typically respond to "Muchas gracias" with the phrase "Con mucho gusto!" This translates literally to "With much gusto!"
"Gusto" is a word that was invented a number of years ago by a beer company, whose commercials told us that, since we're all going to die, we should "grab for all the gusto you can". The apparent original meaning of the word involved something to do with sailing on luxury cruisers, skiing over cliffs, and coed hang-gliding. After awhile, however, the beer company realized that most beer drinkers actually just sit on their couches and watch football, and never come close to experiencing Gusto, which made them resent the commercials. So the beer company owners negotiated to sell the rights to "Gusto" to the people who make up the Spanish language, who thought it was a pretty cool word, that would enhance their standing versus the French (who had just obtained the rights to "Déjà vu" from Crosby, Stills, and Nash).
Anyway, the dictionary definition of "Gusto" in Spanish now is something like "unrestrained, impassioned ecstasy". Or maybe "pleasure," whatever. So when you say Thank you to a Spanish speaking person, his response it to assure you that he, in fact, receives great pleasure from the act of giving to you. Think of the implications of this. Since giving to you or serving you is actually a source of great enjoyment to others, you are actually doing them a favor by requesting their services! It certainly makes me feel good to walk around in Latin America asking people to carry my bags, to give me food, to massage my neck, and having them tell me, when I thank them, that they achieved much Gusto from the act. But I'm just a generous guy.
The French, meanwhile, go even further than the Spanish. When you say "Merci beaucoups" to a French person (assuming you pronounce it properly and he's not an obnoxious Parisian shopkeeper), the polite response is usually, "Je vous en prie." Interestingly, this is also the more polite way of saying "Please" in French. Literally, it means "I beg it of you."
Now, it seems reasonable to say "I beg you" as part of a request for a favor. But to say "je vous en prie" in response to "Thank you" is essentially saying, "You thank me? No, I beg you to allow me to do this service for you! You must let me do it! I implore you, I beseech you!" Talk about polite! Now I've not only made a person ecstatic by asking him to do something for me, I would be gravely insulting and disappointing him if I didn't request his aid. So, next time you're in France, don't hesitate to ask your waiter or bellboy to lend you his car, to carry you up to your room, to give you his watch: they'd just die if you didn't let them.
Philippinos are the nicest, most generous people in the world. When you say "Thank you" ("Salamat") to them, they say "Walang anuman po," which means "It's nothing, sir." As in, "Are you kidding? If you think that was enjoyable, wait til you see what else I can do for you!" Take my advice, and take them up on the offer.
Those are the only languages I know, but I've heard about some other, even more extreme forms of politeness in certain other cultures.
In Serbo-Croation, for example, it's my understanding that the phrase equivalent to "You're welcome" is something like "oaõkyahh bïtnlnzåøsdd raaaadwi¶¾". The literal translation is "I insist that you have sex with my wife."
In Mongolian, the proper response when someone expresses gratitude is "shichulaba gorpopristi ramalamadingdong poopichow". The phrase has several variations, but this is the most common, which translates to "I will now submerge my face in cow manure for you." When traveling in Mongolia, it is best to avoid appearing too grateful, especially when near a farm. It is also wise not to do anything for anyone else that might lead them to thank you. These customs, after all, are considered polite for guests, as well.
© 1998 David N. Townsend
The Beanstalk grows out of my head, so to speak, but I welcome
any seeds that readers may wish to plant. Just as long as you don't use
too much fertilizer. Send me your comments, ideas, drool, at
and I'll occasionally respond to, publish, or otherwise dispose of them.
Need more? In addition to the rich and growing archives of this column,
you might want to visit The Site itself, and any of my other collections, on
Communication, Baseball, Rock 'n' Roll, or Travel.