“THANKS, BUT NO THANKS”
By Marilyn P. Davis
She was usually the first one to greet my arrival and always with a big smile. But this morning I was sitting by the fire, drinking my first cup of coffee, before I saw my goddaughter. Immediately I knew something was wrong. Her face was sad. For a few minutes she didn’t say anything, and then as large tears came to her eyes she asked if she had offended me in some way. “Anita, of course not.” I put a consoling hand on her shoulder. “Why would you think that?’ “But, madrina, why would you send me a letter?’ A letter? I had recently sent her a thank-you note.
On my visit the week before she surprised me with a set of lovely napkins for my tortillas. She had colorfully embroidered each one with different fruits and flowers and crocheted the edges in a variety of patterns. Of course, I was moved and thanked her profusely. Then, as is our custom, of wanting the thanks to measure up to the thoughtfulness and appreciation of the gift, I also sent a note. I explained that I loved the napkins and wanted her to know, and so sent her a note of thanks. “But why would I be angry?” ‘Well I don’t know. I knew you would like the servilletas but, no one ever sent me a letter. I didn’t know what it meant.”
When you’re learning a new language, one of the joys is finding the word that is familiar, a word you already know, can pronounce, and there is a direct translation. Seemingly the Spanish word “gracias’ is one of those joys. We use it numerous times a day; and when someone says, “gracias,” we know they’re saying thank-you. But in Mexican Spanish, the word “gracias” is not a direct translation of “thank-you.” It holds worlds of meaning. Underlying all forms of thanks is a system of interchanges that are meant to define, continue, or terminate the relationship.
In casual encounters people will say ‘gracias’ when you do a small favor, buy something from them, or let them pass in front of you. If you give your housekeeper a gift of clothing or food, she may respond “gracias.” This “gracias” is a casual form of courtesy and indicates a distance in the relationship with no further obligation. You may notice that when you give someone a few coins, in lieu of “gracias,” they most often respond with, “Que Dios se lo pague.”
Then there are times when you give a friend what you would consider to be nice gift, and her reaction might be to utter an almost inaudible, “gracias” or nothing at all. You may overlook your friend’s lack of enthusiasm, but there is an underlying feeling that she didn’t like the gift, or perhaps you have done something inappropriate. You’ll wonder, why the thoughtlessness in this normally very courteous, formal culture?
Make no mistake, this is not ungracious or a lack of interest. Your friend is thrilled to receive your gift. Be patient. Eventually she will respond with a gift or favor that is (in her mind) of the same value or higher than what you gave. This is not one-upmanship or an issue of thanks. Rather your friend is telling you that she holds your friendship in high regard and is doing her part to maintain the bond. If this is an on-going relationship, as evidence and reaffirmation, you must eventually reciprocate with another gift. This is a case in which you can say gracias, but isn’t nearly enough, and won’t be interpreted as thank-you.
It’s a fascinating culture, isn’t it?!