When a Verbal Expression of Thanks Just Won’t Do

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Initially, it seems more straightforward for an English speaker to translate the phrase thank you with the Indonesian synonym (terima kasih) than to learn all the different ways that Indonesians say please. Terima kasih literally means “receive love,” which allows the speaker to verbally declare the receipt of a kindness or gift from someone else. Many of the hundreds of indigenous languages in Indonesia, however, do not have such a phrase, so they often borrow the Indonesian expression. Central Sulawesi highlanders repronounce the Indonesian “receive love” phrase as tarima kase. Similar borrowings are found in the languages of other outer island Indonesian groups: terimo kasih (Mandailing, Sumatra); tarimo kasi (Angkola, Sumatra); terimong geunasih (Aceh, Sumatra). The list goes on and on. In Dutch-influenced regions such as Ambon and North Sulawesi, people rephrase the informal Dutch Denk je (‘Thank you”) as danke. Similarly, in the former Portuguese (and later, Indonesian) colony of East Timor (now an independent nation), Portuguese words for obliged are used (obrigado for men and obrigada for women). This idea of expressing one’s sense of obligation brings us closer to answering the puzzle of what is going on in the vast majority of Indonesian places where “thank you” has no synonym. In those regions, local people respond to kindnesses by expressing their positive emotions as raw appreciation rather than using a boilerplate catchphrase of verbal gratitude. Like the Toba people of North Sumatra who say mauliate (literally, “feeling good in my heart”), Uma speakers often simply say “I am Living in Indonesia without happy” (Goe’ ama) after receiving a gift. Sometimes they add a phrase that translates “but one of my arms is long,” implying that they are receiving at that moment but not reciprocating. Sometimes they further engage in self- deprecation, asking for pity because they have nothing to give in return, even when they clearly do, or even just did! Essentially, their words explicitly mark the asymmetrical state of being a receiver, who exists with a future obligation to the giver. In my study of Tobaku indigenous cosmology and Protestant revisions, I noted how foreign missionaries and church leaders frequently reminded highlanders to say please and thanks to God in their prayers for their health, crops, meals, and all life’s blessings. By contrast, before Christian conversion, the Tobaku made oaths of request directly to their deities, oaths that promised offerings in return for those same benefits of life. Although the new please and thank you words were added dutifully as verbal ornaments, I suggest that “Tobaku prayers still wrap these recent and inherently empty words around the material solidarity of sacrificial offerings to instill efficacy” (Aragon 2000:248). Essentially, in the hierarchical or ritual relations among humans, and between humans and deities, words do not exist apart from material goods and deeds in constituting “signs of recognition” (Keane 1997). Ward Keeler (1984:109) illuminates an interesting Javanese twist on the issue by describing a Javanese term, matur nuwun (“saying thank you”; hatur nuhun in Sundanese), that traditionally was appropriate only for superiors, and during formal situations. The term had been perceived as unsuitable for social inferiors and even hurtful in personal encounters. Keeler writes that a speaker at a large ritual gathering will repeat the phrase “ceaselessly.” But, traditionally, a superior does not use phrases at this formal and humbling Javanese speech level (krama andhap) while addressing an inferior. More significantly, Keeler suggests that rather than strengthening a bond of friendship, the use of the “thank you” phrase matur nuwun in response to an act of kindness “short-circuits” the good feeling that gifts or kindnesses are intended to promote. Keeler writes: If one says “matur nuwun” to a friend, it implies both distance and a denial of reciprocity—and one can watch his or her face fall as a result. It is telling that people do often say “matur nuwun” when€.€.€. money changes hands, since monetary payment is also a cancellation of further implications of debt and exchange. (Ibid., 109) Keeler astutely notes here how “thank you” words seem to cancel, or deny the promise of, future reciprocation for a gift. When writing the acknowledgments section of my first book, I struggled for a way to avoid Indonesian words, to use local Uma terms to express my gratitude and sense of obligation for all the help I received from Central Sulawesi people. I wrote, “Lentora rahi kai ompi’ ompi’ omea dipo tahi,” or, “I greatly miss all my siblings across the sea.” That was the best I could do to say “thank you” in Uma to an indigenous people who have no local words for this expression. George Aditjondro (2007), an Indonesian social scientist who has worked in both northern Sumatra and Central Sulawesi, notes that the absence of indigenous words for “thank you” in many areas of western and eastern Indonesia “has surprised many outsiders, Indonesians and westerners alike.” But, Aditjondro agrees that “the absence of the expression ‘thank you’ in so many ethnic languages in this archipelago does not mean that the speakers of those languages lack a sense of gratitude.” Aditjondro writes: Different forms of gratitude are known and practiced by these peoples, different from the Western, or, for that matter, Indonesian forms of gratitude. Basically, material and non-material forms of gifts develop a sense of gratitude among the receivers of the gifts. Or, probably, a sense or feeling of indebtedness. Utang budi (“a debt of character” or “a moral debt”) we say in Indonesian. Utang na loob, in Tagalog in the Philippines. One can only be relieved from this feeling once one has responded in kind or after providing a service for the person from whom one has received the material or non-material gifts. In other words, underlying the absence of words for “thank you” is the need to maintain reciprocity, or, reciprocal ways of returning the favors we have received by providing services or goods needed by the initial givers of gifts. Reciprocity, is the key word. This reciprocity is a form of exchange, prior to the Western or Malay way of trading, which maintains the internal relations within the ethno-linguistic groups, or between the ethno-linguistic groups. (Aditjondro 2007) What Aditjondro refers to here is what anthropologists, following the economist Karl Polanyi (1944), call “delayed reciprocity,” a kind of noncommodified gift exchange process, whose worldwide variations were described and theorized in the 1920s by Marcel Mauss (1990). Aditjondro contrasts this kind of long-term reciprocity with capitalist trading (the “Western or Malay way”), which follows an alternative (and to us more familiar) “tit-for-tat” or “balanced reciprocity” exchange policy between people who have no necessary or long-term relationship once the exchange is transacted. Without a sense of mutual debt and obligation, there is not necessarily any future to a social relationship. When we hand our payment to the store cashier and she says “thank you,” our interaction is completed and our relationship closed. As it turns out, the cross-cultural puzzle of why many Indonesian languages have no synonym for thank you is solved not by thinking about which alternate words or behaviors would be “good enough” to replace our own verbal expressions of gratitude. Rather, it is solved by recognizing that for people engaging in delayed forms of social and economic reciprocity, words themselves are not enough to balance deeds. Additionally, compensation Living in Indonesia without a must occur at a later date so that a period of indebtedness prolongs, and thereby strengthens, the relationship. Thus, at the moment when a first good deed is enacted, often the best thing the recipient can do is simply acknowledge pleasure and a state of asymmetry or obligation in the “gift-exchange” relationship. Both parties then may part with a sense of indebtedness and responsibility to nurture the relationship later. Keeler (1987) notes that the Western custom of always saying “thank you” in response to any kindness seems to Indonesians to be rather jejune, in the sense of being both unsatisfying and immature. I, too, try to explain this in my ethnography about the Tobaku region: Debts of significance cannot be released with a few fluffy words floated for a moment in the air. Gifts require continuation of the exchange process, not its cessation through attempted compensation. Obligations are a state of being and a means to create relations anew. Hence, when visiting Indonesia, feel free to express thanks, gratitude, and happiness for all the kindnesses Indonesian people undoubtedly will grant you. But be prepared for gifts to change your relationship, and to unleash expectations that you will make relationships continue through future, and sometimes unexpected, forms of reciprocity.


Acknowledgments.  Despite the irony of verbally thanking anyone after this essay, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the work of this volume’s editors and to mention the names of other scholars whose contributions have directly affected my thinking on this subject. I am grateful to Ward Keeler for contributing so much to Javanese linguistic issues; to Mohammad Thoiyibi for enlightening me further on contemporary Javanese and Indonesian usage; to George Aditjondro for documenting thank you and reciprocity terms across the archipelago; to Michael Martens for always graciously sharing his extensive knowledge of Uma; to Nancy Eberhardt for her insight on transforming status and wealth distribution through requests; and to Liz Coville, with whom I shared early conversations about experiences of minta on Sulawesi. Finally, again, I remember with happiness the many kind people I met in the Tobaku highlands (Goe’ ama!) and feel the absence of their good-natured companionship (Lentora rahi kai).




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