Whenever people come to India and stay for a while, they try to learn some words of Hindi. Starting with the words they deem the most important, they always ask: ‘What does ‘Thank you’ mean in Hindi? And we usually tell them first the Hindi word and then right away that they won’t need to learn it. Why?
Not only because everyone anyway understands ‘Thank you’ nowadays. No, also because it is a word that you only rarely get to hear. You go in a shop, you pay, take your things and get your service – many Indians would not say ‘Thank you’ in this situation. When you sit at the table and get served food in traditional Indian style, you won’t usually hear Indians say ‘Thank you’ when the food reaches their plate.
I use to answer that Indians keep the thankfulness in their hearts and don’t need to express this each time. It is known and expected that you are thankful, no need to say it. They can express the same by just telling how they appreciate an item you gifted them for example. And sometimes they can have the feeling that they paid for certain things or services, so why should they say ‘Thank you’?
I always say it also is because Indians are not so formal in this case. They are formal in many other areas but not when it comes to saying ‘Thank you’. They don’t have pre-scripted dialogues like the ‘Bless you!’ – ‘Thank you!’ after a sneeze for example. Those are words that have become habits, that are not even thought about and thus in many cases also not really felt. Only formalities.
On the other hand however, western people always come to the Ashram and when they leave, they thank us for the nice time and our work. And they don’t only say they are thankful, they really are, too. It is not only a habit. They are thankful because we have put our heart in our work. We could let people come and then just run our Ashram in a more sterile, dry and less heartfelt way, too. Not include people in our family that much and having employees take care of things that we usually do. Instead we pour our full heart into what we do and prefer having friends as guests rather than mere visitors.
Coming back to the point, saying that you are thankful obviously is not necessarily a proof that you actually are. You could say it and not mean it. At the same time, you could not say it and still be thankful!
My conclusion is that in India, saying ‘Thank you’ is just not in the habit of people. Especially not for small things like a glass of water.