To Thank Or Not To Thank in Indonesian

On my first trip to Indonesia twenty years ago, I arrived in the village of Ubud in Bali and was sitting in my losmen. Two young hotel maids came in, and started making up the beds. I said, “Terima kasih”. 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.

How often do Indonesians thank?

Indonesians use terima kasih and makasih only sparingly. One Indonesian explains: Indonesians … do not express their thanks in every occasion explicitly. Indonesians’ expression of thanks only appear if they explicitly ask other people to help them. This will be clear in a situation like borrowing books in the library or buying goods from the market or getting off the bus. Indonesians feel that they do not need to say ‘thank you’ to librarians or merchants or bus drivers because it is their duty to serve the customer. (Soenarso, 1988, p. 31)

Librarians? That surprises me a little. But certainly I’ve noticed the basic truth of this. When someone performs a routine service for someone else, they are often not thanked for it. And I have noticed at least two situations where Indonesians seem never to thank: when the conductor in a city bus hands them their ticket and change, and when the petugas at the supermarket swaps their belongings for a security pass as they enter and leave. So 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 Indonesians 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.

Thanking among Australians

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 ‘Thank you’ … ‘Thanks’ … ‘Thank you’ …

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.

Thanking is on the rise

Indonesians are starting to thank each other more often. 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 practice 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 the Indonesian viewers see characters saying terima kasih to each other constantly when they watch TV. This also helps to change people’s speech habits.

The idea that not thanking people is traditional behaviour, while thanking is modern and sophisticated, reveals itself in literature.

Witness this extract from a story about a young rural servant girl:

Berikan apa saja padanya yang akan menyenangkan hatinya barang sedikit, dan ia akan berseri-seri. Tapi ia tak biasa mengucapkan terima kasih. Dalam pergaulan keluarga-keluarga orang sederhana di kampung kami, kata terimakasih masih asing. Hanya seri yang memancar di paras jua ucapan itu mendapat jalan.

If she were given anything at all that pleased her, her face would light up. But she did not normally say terima kasih. Among the simple folk of our village, the expression terima kasih is still uncommon. The happiness reflected in the features is sufficient substitute for those words.

(“Inem” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1950. Translation is by Johns, 1981, p. 176, modified.)

Here, not thanking people is portrayed as a habit of those who have not yet acquired modern ways. That neatly complements an episode in a story by a different writer, A. A. Navis. In that story a young Indonesian returns to his home town after living for years in Europe. He fascinates his old friends with his new sophistication, including his new habit of saying terima kasih when a friend lights his cigarette for him, a trait which he tells them is European etiquette, and which they mockingly imitate.

Conclusions

Yes, thanking is becoming more common in Indonesia. But Indonesians with traditional cultural values still do it quite rarely, and even educated city dwellers do it a good deal less than we do in Australia. So learners must be sensitive to the risk of over-thanking people. 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 back-up strategy for difficult moments it can be useful!

Read also “Asking For What You Want In Indonesian” written by Dr. Timothy Hassall, Lecturer in Indonesian, Australian National University, Canberra.

About author
Tim Hassall has a PhD in Applied Linguistics, an MA in TESOL, and a Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education. He coordinates and teaches courses on Indonesian language and aspects of Indonesian linguistics at the Australian National University, Canberra. His main research interests are the acquisition of second language pragmatics and the influence of English on Indonesian. He has published a number of articles in refereed journals and book chapters.

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