Teaching Gratitude American-style

World Gratitude Day is September 21. This is a perfect occasion for host families and exchange students to compare notes: how do people in other countries show gratitude? How do we give thanks in the USA?

This video explores the American custom of saying thank you as compared to ideas about gratitude in India, China, Japan, Iran, Russia and Spain. Could thank you be a taboo in some countries - in certain situations?

Video Sources: Gratitude in India: I've Never Thanked My Parents for Anything, Gratitude in China: What Thank You Sounds like to Chinese Ears, Gratitude in Japan: Japanese Business Culture and Practices - Jon P. Alston 2005 (p. 40), Gratitude in Iran: Gratitude Strategies of Persian and English Speakers, Gratitude in Russia: Russian Expectations of Friendship, 8-Language Gratitude Study: Universals and Cultural Diversity in the Expression of Gratitude.

 In the USA we have our own special - even unique - gratitude culture. Foreigners often don’t know what to make of it. They wonder: 
  • “Why do waiters and clerks thank me?” 
  • “Why would parents ever thank their children?
  • “Why would a boss say thank you to an employee?”
  • “Why would you write words of thanks on a sticky note? 
  • “Why would you pay money for a card that says “thank you” on it?

smiling girl looking at waitress taking order

Thanking waiters, clerks and customers is a US custom that can surprise foreigners.

This is good food for thought when we host a foreign exchange student. They have learned to feel grateful too. But in each country, people learn how to express their gratitude in very different ways.

For example, when I moved from Seattle to Spain, I had to rethink my gratitude. “Don’t send a thank you card,” my husband pleaded. That was not the way to thank my mother-in-law. It was better to give her a call, as a card could create a culture shock because it was (way) too much... And that was just the beginning. I had a lot to learn!

Blackboard with A B C written in chalk

Foreigners - including exchange students - in any culture need to learn the A B C’s of gratitude as we know and practice them in the USA. That means they need special knowledge, skills and attitudes for surviving and thriving in our country:

  • Knowledge - What do they need to know about American customs?
  • Skills - Exactly how should they express gratitude in the US?
  • Attitudes - What should they feel grateful for?

In this post we will start with knowledge to see what foreigners need to know in order to fit in. Then we will take an inventory of gratitude skills that we often take for granted. And finally, we’ll consider a difficult question: why can it be so hard for foreigners to have an attitude of gratitude? 

Teaching Gratitude Knowledge

This isn't about treating a teen like a tiny tot. However, it’s a good idea to go back to the beginning and remember what we learned when we were growing up. 

American parents explicitly teach even small kids to say "thank you" loud and clear. We have books, web resources and videos for teaching little ones how to use those magic words. But, as we’ve seen in the video above, in many cultures people do not say thank you (especially to loved ones). Instead, they feel it, and they do it. But they don't say it.

Berenstain Bears Please and Thank you book

Foreign exchange students who come to the US have missed out on many years of gratitude training, including essential advice from the Berenstain Bears.

So where do you begin with a high school student? 

It could be uncomfortable to actually tell a teen, “Say thank you!” And, especially if you are the one in need of thanking. So, consider broaching this subject in a general way:

“Do you want me to explain a really important American custom? This is something that will make you more successful in the USA…”

Then take it from there…

family sitting around the table for Thanksgiving dinner

Foreign exchange students can learn a lot on Thanksgiving Day, but they still need explicit training and practical information for expressing gratitude appropriately every day.

Sharing holidays like Thanksgiving, and recounting the history of the pilgrims can get the ball rolling. But foreign exchange students need practical information too. Here's a sample "curriculum" that covers who, what, when, where, why and how.

What do they need to do?

  • They need to express thanks explicitly

Why do they need to do this?

  • It’s polite, expected and normal in the USA
  • It’s important to American people
  • People in the USA will like them more and be more helpful
  • It’s rude not to explicitly express gratitude in our country

How should they express gratitude in the US?

  • It’s important to actually say the words "thank you" - and often
  • It’s nice to write notes and cards sometimes
  • It’s thoughtful to give small gifts occasionally

Thank you card, pen, and wrapped gift

Whom should they express thanks to?

  • Family, friends, teachers and classmates
  • Strangers who help them
  • Professionals who serve them
  • Everyone and anyone they interact with in a positive way

When should they express thanks?

  • On the spot
  • After the fact
  • Many times, every day

“When I first moved to the United States...I didn’t know I was supposed to thank someone who took my money for something I bought at a store,” writes Deepak Singh from India, in his article “I’ve Never Thanked My Parents for Anything”. He was lacking so much cultural knowledge, but little by little he learned. However, it was still hard to put that knowledge into action...

Teaching Gratitude Skills

Do American kids automatically express gratitude appropriately? No way! Parents have to patiently teach specific skills. The same goes for foreign exchange students. They need skills!

Keep reading to remember the skills that are second nature for you - but not for an exchange student...

Sign that says Give Thanks to discuss ways to cultivate gratitude every day and teach gratitude skills and culture

Thank you: how you say it...

A simple “thank you” is lovely, but foreign exchange students need encouragement to branch out and experiment with other ways to say it too: 

“Hey, I really appreciate that!” “Thanks a million!” “That was really nice of you!” “Thanks, that means a lot to me.” “How can I thank you enough?”

Thank you: how you write it…

Writing a thank you note or card is harder than you think - if you’ve never done it - especially if you come from a culture where it would be a very strange thing to do indeed. Foreign exchange students need concrete practice: 

“How about if I help you write a thank you note to your teacher/coach/coordinator?” 

It’s good to sit together and write one note or card each week until they get the hang of it. This is a challenging task for a newcomer.

Thank you: how you really share it...

Living in Spain and preparing students to go study in the USA opened my eyes. We Americans actually give little “thank you speeches” to each other. Yes, we do! They go like this:

 “Hey, I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am for all your help these days. You have been so supportive. I can’t tell you how much that means to me. Thank you so much!”

This is what we do when someone has really gone the extra mile for us. It’s a way to share deep appreciation. Exchange students need explicit instruction in how to do this: 

“Hey, your friend has really been there for you lately, would you like me to show you how we thank someone in a situation like this?” 

It helps to jot down a sample script they can adapt, expand and use in a variety of situations as they improve this skill.

Gratitude Attitudes: why can it be so hard?

My husband and I moved to Spain just before Christmas. One day a very large, holiday gift box arrived from his new company. It was filled with an odd collection of strange food and drink - at least that was my impression. My Spanish husband was thrilled! 

Today I look back and laugh. After many years, I appreciate many of those "strange" foods and drinks as genuine delicacies in this country. That's what happened with so many aspects of Spanish culture. In the early years, it was hard to feel grateful for things I didn't understand or value. But little by little, I learned.

Every exchange student goes through this. Some things in the USA will quickly inspire gratitude. But many (many) others could take time to appreciate.

Gratitude Activities

Gratitude activities are a great way to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. These are excellent resources to share with an exchange student, but they're also good refreshers for the whole family.

Game pieces show the word Thank You to talk about cross cultural gratitude and saying thank you in the USA

And consider this: exchange is all about sharing culture, and each of the following activities provides opportunities to talk about culture. You might be surprised not only by cultural differences, but also the many things you have in common.

Here are a few activities that could spark learning, and interesting conversations, with your student:

Gratitude Jar

All you need is one large jar, strips of paper and pens. Ask each family member to write something they are grateful for each day, fold it up and drop it into the jar. Once a week, take turns drawing papers from the jar, reading them aloud and trying to guess who wrote each one. This can be done over breakfast, lunch or dinner - or at start or end of a weekly meeting.

For a cross-cultural twist, ask your student which gratitude items he finds most important, most interesting and even most surprising or shocking. Why?

Gratitude Journal

Gratitude journal for helping teens cultivate gratitude

Gratitude journal experiments have shown that different cultures can get different results from writing in a gratitude journal. Inspire each family member to spend 10 minutes, each evening, writing about the things they are grateful for, and the people to whom they are grateful. At the end of each entry, they can rate their happiness that day from 0-10, with 10 being the happiest.

Once a week, share results as a family. How does each person feel after writing about gratitude every day? Why?

Do you notice any possible cultural variations?

Gratitude Apps

If you really want to help a teenager get their gratitude on, why not suggest an app? The 365-Day Gratitude Journal app makes it fun to focus on the things you’re grateful for - you can even earn prizes (but you may need to subscribe). Here are two free gratitude apps: Gratitude and Morning!.

Make this cross-cultural too: talk about your app activities over dinner. What is your student most grateful for? Does he or she focus most on people or things? What kinds of people: friends? family? strangers? teachers or coaches? Why?

Gratitude Days

World Gratitude Day is September 21. Why not invent your own traditions together with your student? How could you fuse their culture with yours to create a unique intercultural celebration that would capture the spirit of gratitude in both countries?

Pumpkin pie with sweet bread and cranberry juice for Thanksgiving to teach gratitude and share US culture and customs

Ideally, Thanksgiving Day will be a milestone in your student's gratitude journey. What has she learned about American-style gratitude so far? What surprises, shocks or baffles her? What will she take back to her country to share with family and friends?

What new things can you teach her on this special day?

Gratitude: Teaching and Learning Together

Whenever we teach, we have a chance to learn.

jigsaw puzzle as a metaphor for intercultural sharing and learning for example cross-cultural gratitudeImagine gratitude as a huge jigsaw puzzle. Every culture in the world has a batch of pieces. We need to share our pieces with each other. It's the only way we'll ever see the whole picture.


Tags: cultural values, cross-cultural gratitude, gratitude in India, gratitude in china, gratitude in Japan, gratitude in Iran, Gratitude in Russia, gratitude studies, cultural taboos

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