Saturday, March 31, 2007

cheers

The hardest thing to cope with for an English learner of Swedish is not the gender system in nouns, nor the voiceless palatal-velar fricative, nor the verb-second syntax. No, the toughest thing to learn is how to make do without a word for 'please'. I end up saying Tack ('thank you') in all sorts of places, just in order to make some polite noise when I don't know what else to do.

How often one should thank others is something that differs from culture to culture, and something that people tend to notice as over- or under-present in cultures that are not their own. British expats in America are often heard to say that they miss people saying please and thank you. For what it's worth, as an American in Britain, I miss people saying (AmE) Excuse me or sorry when they knock into me in shops or on the street. (Whenever my mother comes to England, she has cause to exclaim But I thought the English were supposed to be polite!) The worst case of this involved a 9-year-old American guest who was shoved to the floor when she was unfortunate enough to get between a Londoner and an open Tube train door. There's no explaining away that kind of behavio(u)r, that was just rude. Otherwise, my theory is that the reason that British people apologi{s/z}e less often than Americans when they knock against you in a public place is that they're in denial about having made physical contact with a stranger. (See the discussion of notions of privacy in the comments back here.)

One hears a lot more thank yous in Britain during a typical exchange at a (AmE) store check-out counter/(BrE) shop till. Somehow, I've caught on to this, and when I'm working at the charity shop/thrift store, I say thank you when the customer gives me an item to ring up, when they give me their money, and at least once at the end of the transaction. The customer says thank you at least when I give them their change and when I give them their purchase. So, that's a minimum of five thank yous per transaction, but in real interactions, I've counted up to eight. An American encounter would typically have two or three, mostly toward(s) the end of the interaction, and would not include the initial thanks for putting the item-to-be-purchased on the counter. Perhaps because they say thank you more, the British have more ways to give their thanks. One informal means of giving thanks is to say ta, which the OED says is "An infantile form of ‘thank-you’, now also commonly in colloq. adult use." Another is cheers (which is the word I started out intending to write about, since I had a request months ago from Ben Zimmer).

Cheers is interesting because it is so flexible. In AmE, it is simply used as a salutation in drinking (or sometimes with a mimed glass in hand, as a means of congratulations). In BrE it has this use, but is also used to mean 'thank you', 'goodbye' or 'thanks and goodbye'. I first learned these uses of cheers in South Africa, where my American colleague and I learned to pronounce it as chizz, following the example of our South African colleague Chaz (Charles). Using cheers to simply mean 'goodbye' is probably more South African than British (the OED doesn't note this sense, and notes that the 'thank you' meaning is as recent as the mid-1970s), but I find it very useful for those situations in which one wants to close an e-mail with thank you for something that hasn't been done yet. A British colleague noted recently noted with incredulity that Swedes often close e-mails with thanks in advance, wondering whether that was a direct translation from Swedish. It is (tack i förskott), but I had to point out that Americans write this too (whether or not we have knowledge of Swedish!), as we (or at least some of us) have been taught that it is presumptuous to thank someone for something they've been asked to do but haven't done yet. Since cheers is ambiguous between Hail, good person! and Thank you!, I use it to express gratitude while avoiding the feeling that I'm breaking that letter-writing rule that I learned from Miss Pitrella back in whatever grade/year that was. (If anyone is watching me from the Beyond, it's Miss Pitrella.) However, it was Ben Zimmer's impression that cheers "always struck me as UK-derived, yet my sense is that in email context it's used more in the US than the UK." This is not my experience at all, but you can side with Ben in the comments if you like.


So, cheers from Sweden! Or as I tend to think of it, Heaven on Earth (at least when the weather is as gorgeous as it has been this week). Heading back to the UK tomorrow (which, according to the Swedish newspaper I was reading today, is smutsig).

Postscript (the next morning): Woke up this morning reali{s/z}ing some the things I hadn't said in this post. One is that the reason why please and thank you are a little more important in Britain is that Britain is more on the 'deference' side and the US more on the 'solidarity' side on the scale of politeness systems. I discussed this a little back here. This means that Americans start out assuming that everyone's equal/friendly, whereas the British start out assuming some status distinctions between people, and therefore treat strangers (and expect to be treated by strangers) with a bit less familiarity and a bit more polite caution. (Note that this doesn't mean that there aren't big social differentiations in America--just that in many situations we feel it's more polite not to make a big deal of them.) This doesn't directly explain the lesser amount of excuse me behavio(u)r when bumping into people, which is why I had to come up with my little theory above.

Another place where the English say thank you more often is when travel(l)ing by bus or coach (in AmE, they're both bus--we don't differentiate lexically between the cross-town and more comfy long-distance types). If the exit of the bus is by the driver's seat, then one says thanks or thank you to the driver. In Watching the English (if I'm remembering correctly), Kate Fox describes this as insincere English behavio(u)r. Personally, having heard American friendliness described as 'insincere' by many non-Americans, I have a real problem with outsiders describing others' behavio(u)r as 'insincere'. (Kate Fox is an insider, but as an anthropologist, she was taking the outsider's role.) Non-Americans often say to me that they can't abide the insincere way in which Americans are so friendly and complimentary with people they don't even know. I don't think this is insincerity, but optimism and enthusiasm--which can seem unseemly in cultures in which earnestness is unseemly (see Kate Fox again).

I'll stop there before I write another post's worth!

48 comments:

zhoen said...

I tend to end a letter with "Thanks for your time", and it's understood, but I don't know how common it is.

Kathleen said...

I (a non-Swedish-speaking American) do use thanks in advance in e-mail sometimes. I had never considered cheers as an alternative, but it does make sense. I shall at least consider it when corresponding with British friends.

jack said...

I say "thanks for your time" at the end of emails/letters too. Oddly, "thanks in advance" always struck me as being more presumptuous unless the individual has guaranteed they will do something for me, yet hasn't actually done the deed yet.

lynneguist said...

I agree that thanks in advance seems more presumptuous--that's probably why I prefer cheers. The problem with cheers, though, is that it's really only suitable in rather informal interactions. So I can't, for instance, use it when asking the Dean for something...

Anonymous said...

As an American in the UK, I *cringe* when I overhear another American saying "Cheers"! I don't know why.

Margaret said...

I was once extremely annoyed when I was standing in a crush of people waiting to get off a cross-Channel ferry, and a young American pushed his way through from one side to the other, climbing over bags but knocking into me, and then saying, 'Excuse me'. Fortunately I didn't react, but it was only afterwards that I realized what he meant. He meant he was sorry, not 'Please get out of my way'!

Margaret said...

Perhaps I should add that in British English, 'Excuse me' is a polite way of asking someone to let you go past, but if it's used in conjunction with going past, it has the implication of 'You were in my way and shouldn't have been', expressed in the form of sarcastic politeness.

dearieme said...

"the OED .. notes that the 'thank you' meaning is as recent as the mid-1970s": and not all of us have ever warmed to it.

James said...

As an American moving to Australia, I vowed I would only ever say Cheers when making a toast. I actually made it about a year.

Regarding 'thanks', one difference I've noticed between Aus and US is that 'please' seems to be rarely used. 'Thanks' is typically used instead. For example, when buying a coffee, you might get told, 'That will be 3 dollars, thanks' before you've actually given the person any money. It never seemed presumptuous to me so much as illogical.

One theory I've had is that 'please' would be used if the speaker is making a genuine request, rather than just going through the standard retail protocol, but I haven't been able to check that one.

Rebecca said...

I would say 'cheers' for 'thanks in advance' in an email, definitely. I do say 'cheers' for thankyou to friends and family but not to strangers. I say 'ta' a lot, too, but I think that's a Northern thing. I say 'fanks' on IM, no idea why.

jhm said...

Apologies if this is off-topic, but did you mean that 'Sunday' is 'smutsig,' or that {April 1/1 April} is? The linked site seems to depict 'smutsig' as meaning 'dirty' or maybe 'stained/spotted.' Or was this all April fool's day, in advance?

dearieme said...

The first time I bought grog in an Australian bottle-shop I thought the salesman rather rude. "See you later" he said. Bloody hell, I thought, I don't drink all that much.

John said...

I sympathize very much with the commenter who cringes when other Americans say or write "cheers", though of course I've also learned to expect it and take it as intended from Brits. "Cheers" from an American always sounds ironic or flippant, halfway to "toodeloo". Usually I close emails with "thanks", and I realize that this has problems too, since often there's nothing anyone needs to be thankful for, or it is the receiver that ought to be thanking me, but it is understood simply as the valediction meant to cause the least possible amount of irritation.

I do say (and hear others say) "thank you" when exiting a bus, and I try to be and sound sincere, so I don't know this as a UK/US difference.

jack said...

I say "thank you" when leaving a bus too.

Sili said...

To join two lines of thought: I adopted "cheers" for getting of the bus after hearing it repeatedly in Bath ("thank you" is equally common), and my use of it has spread.

I've heard "ta" in the South, too, but much as I'd like to adopt it, I just can't seem to get the proper intonation.

I'm sure I've used "thank you in advance" before (or "thanking you in advance", less likely "thanks in advance"). It's certainly adopting the Danish expression ("på forhånd tak") -- I feel it's rude to ask a favour or make a request and *not* say "thank you". Essentially it's a means to skip the reply once the request is met.

lynneguist said...

JHM, it's April Fool's Day, not April (orig. AmE) Smart Aleck's Day. ;)

jangari said...

Re: cringing upon hearing Americans say cheers.

It's the /r/ I tell you!

Ginger Yellow said...

I'm definitely a multiple thanks kind of person, but at the same time I'm quite conscious that I'm saying it more than is logical. In particular I often say "thanks" or "ta" or "cheers" when I'm handing over my money, which just makes no sense at all. I think in my case anyway it's more to do with my dislike of and lack of skill in small talk. I say fewer "thanks" when it's a shopkeeper I know and chat with or if they engage me in conversation first.

maxwheeler said...

I agree with Margaret that in BrE "Excuse me" can't (any longer) be used as any kind of apology after the fact. It is used, though, to introduce a question put to a stranger, as in "Excuse me, can you tell me where room B347 is?". If you bump into someone, all you can say is "Sorry".

Sili said...

Oh - on the bumbing into people issue:

I have somewhere along the way picked up the habit of saying "pardon" so reflecsively that I'm likely to do it still here in Denmark.

Is that as rude as "excuse me"?

Matt said...

I (an American) have certainly begun to see ‘cheers’ used more and more as a closing salutation in e-mail. As described above, it serves a useful purpose when ‘thank you’ doesn’t make any sense – as in when the e-mail author is the one providing the answer. ‘Sincerely’ is far to formal to use in most banter e-mail, so ‘cheers’ fills a useful role. I see ‘cheers’ used in e-mail exchanged among just Americans, so there is no pretense of sounding foreign in these cases.

lynneguist said...

I should say, my point about bumping into people shouldn't be read as me missing people only saying excuse me when they bump into me. I miss them apologi{s/z}ing (BrE)full stop/(AmE) period. I'll go back and clarify that in the entry, though I take the point that saying excuse me in this context is AmE. The British would usually say sorry in that context--but my point was that they do so far less than I would expect them to.

Canadian said...

I always say thank you when I exit a bus from the front. (Actually I say "merci" where I presently live.) It seems rude to walk right past the driver without acknowledging him/her.

Grant Barrett said...

Data point: Here in New York City lots of people thank the bus driver when disembarking. I do, too.

patricia said...

I put myself through college by working as a bus driver. Any and all thanks were *greatly* appreciated - you can't go wrong by being nice!

lynneguist said...

I'm glad to hear that many Americans say 'thanks' to bus drivers, but I stand by my claim that it's done more in the UK. Every single person did it on the bus I was on yesterday.

marek said...

I have travelled around London by bus almost every day for the last fifteen years or more - and can count the times I have heard a driver thanked on the fingers of one hand. Several of those were in the form "Thank you, Drivah" from elderly ladies with cut glass accents in a tone which they might have heard their mothers using on the under footman.

That's if the driver has just driven. Where he or she has done something particularly helpful - most often waiting at a bus stop while I run breathlessly towards it, thanks are definitely in order and almost invariably given.

That's London - my experience of buses in the rest of the UK is twenty years out of date, so I have no knowledge of how much more prevalent thanks may be.

lynneguist said...

But in London, Marek, one has to exit the bus by the back door, so interaction with the bus driver is limited. I think that's a different kind of situation...

lynneguist said...

Jan Freeman has blogged about this conversation with an interesting corpus analysis of her own email inbox. See it here.

chris. said...

Sili: I've also gotten in the habit of saying "pardon me" to apologize to strangers. "Excuse me" always sounds so sarcastic as an apology and a plain "sorry" never sounds sincere.

On departing the bus: I live in Seattle and hear most people thank the driver upon leaving the bus, which we usually must do at the front.

Re: bus/coach. I'm originally from Central Pennsylvania, and i've always heard a distinction between "bus" (to mean local transit or a school bus) and "charter" (to mean a comfy, long distance, usually rented bus).

lynneguist said...

One of my house guests was a bus driver in the US (in a university town in the northeast, and some cross-country work as well) in an earlier incarnation. Before telling him about this conversation, I asked how many passengers said 'thank you' to him in the course of a day, and he replied: 4%.

David P said...

I'm in the south of the UK and I do tend to use 'Ta' a lot. Though I may have picked that up from my sister who went to university up north.

Many passengers do thank the bus driver I notice, though the (mostly) senior citizens sometimes say "Thank you, driver" which I'd never be comfortable with saying as it seems too informal and seems to infer they're on a better social level to the bus driver. Or that's the way it seems to me, it probably doesn't to them.

I can understand how other cultures customs can seem insincere to others. An American saying "Have a Nice Day" after I've bought something does sound very insincere to me, even though I know it (probably) isn't.

David P said...

I meant 'too formal' not 'too informal' in the bit above.

Gary the AMOS said...

I was guided here by a an English friend now in the USA and thought it was a coincidence that "Cheers" came up as one of the American servicemen here asked me about it just this week! I am a lone British Civil Servant working with American servicemen. I am trying to help them master English!!!!

Hodge said...

I have a few friends/co-workers who use "cheers" to close every e-mail. I use "thanks" every time. I suppose I think of it as thanking them for reading the whole thing, more than for anything else.

As an American, I would be caught off-gaurd hearing "Ta" in any situation. I would probably assume that it was meant as "good-bye", as a shortend form of "Ta-Ta". Are the single and double Ta thought to be the same in BrE?

lynneguist said...

Oxford has ta as originally a children's word, and ta-ta as 'origin unknown'. Their uses are definitely separate--i.e. ta doesn't mean 'goodbye' and ta-ta doesn't mean 'thank you'.

jack said...

david p wrote:

"I can understand how other cultures customs can seem insincere to others. An American saying "Have a Nice Day" after I've bought something does sound very insincere to me, even though I know it (probably) isn't."

I think it depends. I work as a grocery store cashier and was only told to be nice to and greet the customers, and "Have a nice day" worked well for me. I generally did mean it because, after all, angry customers complain and get me written up. However, for a while the management decided it would be very controlling of what employees said, and we were given a script-like set of things we had to say that went:

"Hi, How are you today? I'm Jack. Did you find everything you were looking for?"

and after the order:

"Have a nice day"

The managers were very anal about it for a while, watching you to make sure you said everything above, but eventually they relaxed and the atmosphere is once again more informal and people say whatever friendly greeting they are most comfortable with. Perhaps they decided that having a script results in the greeting coming off as insensere. I remember customers getting angry when I asked them if they found everything, telling me it wasn't any of my business.

flashgordonnz said...

So in Swendish "dictionary" is "ordbok". That looks like "Wordbook", gee, I might even remeber that! I've not ever had a thing for languages. Maybe sendish is for me!

Paul Danon said...

I note non-E (as L1) speakers using sorry for excuse me when, in BrE at least, sorry is only for after you've barged past someone. My kids say I embarrass them when I thank cash-machines, though I can't think why. Non-E speakers have complained to me (as if I could do anything about it) about the lack of a standard word to utter when you give someone something. In German you say bitte as you hand over the sauerkraut-sandwich and I believe alstublieft serves a similar function in Dutch when serving stroopwafel. Italian has a word for it which isn't the same as the please word but at least they've got one. Here in London, we use there you are, moosh. If the item is food, one may add get your laughing-gear around that.

Paul Danon said...

BTW, it is inadvisable to try to thank the driver on the Docklands Light Railway.

Anonymous said...

I say thanks or thankyou, I think cheers is a bit colloquial for a letter it's used alot in spoken language in England i think

Anonymous said...

I also cringe when I hear other Americans use "Cheers," especially in email. In my experience, they are definitely not using it the way others do to mean "Thanks" or "Thanks and goodbye." They are using it in a very American way, as an informal "Best Wishes," or something like "Good times to you," closer in meaning to what Americans say when toasting drinks. What's more, it seems to be used when an American thinks of themselves as hip and cultured, hence my cringe. To me, it comes off as pretentious.

David Young said...

The practice of thanking bus drivers varies regionally within Britain, and I don't think it is merely a matter of the layout of the vehicles. I remember being surprised when I encountered it on coming to the south of England, and it seems I am not alone. In the novel A Bowl of Cherries by Shena Mackay (Harvester Press, 1984), a character is approaching the end of a bus journey near Dorking, in Surrey:

"Mercifully her bus stop hove in sight. She pressed the bell with relief and then stepped down, thanking the driver, as she had observed was the custom in these parts, onto the verge, ..." (p. 174)

I am not sure if it is made clear where the character comes from, but since she calls people "duck", the Potteries (well north of Surrey) is a good bet. The author was born in Edinburgh but lived in various parts of England before writing the book.

Lindenwood said...

(I have come very late to this discussion by virtue of the fact that I searched the blog for excuse me/sorry!)

I distinctly remember feeling affronted the first time someone who bumped into me in the supermarket in New Jersey said "Excuse me!" As an Australia, saying "Excuse me!" after the bumping-into had occurred would be more of a sarcastic thing said by the person NOT responsible for the bumping, implying that the bumpER had no manners because they didn't say sorry! Hence my angst in NJ supermarkets...

Sophie Sofasaurus said...

I'm from the UK. I spent five weeks in Washington DC a few years ago. I came back remarking on how polite everyone was in the street. I wondered if this might be because people in the US typically spend less time as pedestrians, and so are less "hardened" to casual pavement encounters. This might explain why New Yorkers have a brusquer reputation as pedestrians.

On the other hand, where food was being served, I was quite surprised to hear conversations such as:
- How would you like your coffee?
- Black.
Even the most unregenerate British chav would find it almost impossible to say anything but "Black, please" there.

Boris said...

Well, that explains why my boss in the UK (we're a very international company. I'm in New Jersey) ends our conference calls with "Cheers. Bye."

I knew only the "goodbye" meaning of "Cheers", not the "thank you" one.

Regarding bus/coach in the US, I know multiple bus companies/services with "coach" in their name, though I don't think it has to do with distance. The most prominent where I live is "Coach USA" (though it's a subsidiary of the Stagecoach Group, a UK company), which provides medium-distance services (commuter services between New York and points in New Jersey and Pennsylvania). They also run the more long distance Megabus service, which, curiously, doesn't have "coach" in its name (even in the UK). On the other hand, the "colonial coach" is a very short distance bus service which never leaves the towns of Morris and Morristown.

Becky said...

In South Africa, minibus taxis have become more common than buses, and don't have pre-set stops the way buses do.

Passengers typically say, "Thank you driver," to indicate that they're ready to get out. Some also say it when they're literally getting out, but usually it's one or the other (or neither).

Lori Baldwin Morton said...

I think it's strange that some Americans cringe when they hear other Americans say "cheers." I'm an American and I think it's a perfectly good word for us to use. Why should it be considered pretentious? I think a lot of Americans who are very aware of, and/or have an appreciation for other countries have an "excuse me for being American" complex. The British and the Americans adopt slang and colloquialisms from each other regularly. That's one of the nice/fun things about sharing a language with each other. So, I'll keep using "cheers," even if it makes some of my compatriots cringe. I think they'll eventually get over it.