Living in Indonesia without a Please or Thanks: Cultural Translations of Reciprocity and Respect

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“Can I take a sip of your drink, Dad?” I recently heard a seven year-old American girl ask in a public waiting room. “Yes, but you didn’t say ‘Please’,” her father chided gently. “Please. Thanks!” The little girl chanted these two magic words in quick succession as she eagerly reached for her father’s can of soda pop. It is easy to watch these remarkably powerful words being taught to young children in any home or public arena in the United States. Those of us who speak English or other European languages generally take these words for granted. But we know that their deployment brings politeness, persuasion, and permission to what might otherwise be unacceptable requests. The power of these words also can be made visible by their absence. Try living a day in the company of others without ever saying “please” or “thank you,” and see what happens. Social psychology experiments devised in the 1970s tested the boundaries of U.S. social norms through their intentional violation. Those studies, briefly in vogue, were termed ethnomethodology. The experiments were easy to design once the formula of nonchalant rule violation was conceived, but their popularity among psychologists and sociologists was short-lived because of the ill will they produced. Similar discomfort often arises when we travel innocently to distant places where customary rules of politeness differ. Even with our best efforts, our attempts to translate our own polite forms often seem to fall awkwardly flat. That said, it may seem unimaginable that societies in Indonesia, a region known for its intricate forms of politeness, would lack such basic terms as please and thank you to oil the wheels of harmonious social interaction. As the anthropologists Clifford Geertz (1976) and James Peacock (1987) describe, the language, cosmology, politics, and aesthetics of Indonesia’s most populous ethnic group, the Javanese, revolve around a dualism that contrasts the Living in Indonesia without a Please or Thanks Indonesian with the coarse or crude (kasar, Javanese and Indonesian). We therefore would expect verbal expressions of gratitude to be prominent among peoples who are anxious about proper speech and social refinement. But, in fact, most of the more than three hundred indigenous languages spoken in the Indonesian archipelago do not include synonyms for terms such as please and thank you. Most languages in Indonesia borrow some “thank you” phrase from European languages or the national language, termed bahasa Indonesia, to cope with contemporary cosmopolitan expectations. When local people speak to one another in their native tongues, by contrast, they can make do without these phrases. So, the cross-cultural puzzle arises. How does one live smoothly and politely in a society without a generic word like please to make your demanding requests upon others tolerable, and no phrases like thank you to express gratitude for help and kindness? Is gratitude simply assumed in small Southeast Asian communities of equals? Are the messages our European words contain perhaps encoded alternatively in nonverbal gestures? The answers are more complicated. We must think in unfamiliar ways about what these kinds of words actually do—or, sometimes, cannot do—for us and others. Ward Keeler (1984:xvii) notes that “a critical part of learning a language is to learn not to want or need to say what one says in English, but rather to learn to say what people say in the culture of the language one is learning.” In essence, then, studying a region’s language in situ is much more about learning to intuit the logic of meaningful local categories and patterns of social expectations than it is about memorizing one-to-one linguistic translations. We are informed not only about technical language usage and conversational routines, but also about widespread Southeast Asian cultural practices of economic exchange and hierarchy. Keeler writes that Java is full of small talk, and polite conversation draws on a large store of stereotypical remarks. To use them is not thought stultifying, as some Westerners find, but rather gracious, comfortable, indicative of the desire to make every encounter smooth and effortless for all concerned. Given these concerns, it has surprised many observers that Indonesians, including the notoriously manners-obsessed Javanese, make little use, or very different use, of the kinds of terms we take as the mainstay of our polite interactions in most European languages. In what follows, I will show that the English term please is a rather diffuse word, one that maps onto many different kinds of requests in Indonesian languages. And, thank you has implications about intimacy and economy in Indonesia that we would never imagine. Before exploring these linguistic alleyways, though, we should consider what the Indonesian language is, and how it came to be the youthful nation’s twentieth-century communication highway.



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