AFS support volunteers often hear from host families that their students are not grateful, or appreciative enough, for all that the host families do for them. Often, when we dig a little deeper into the situation, we find that cultural differences around when it is/is not appropriate to express gratitude and how it is expressed, are at the root of the issue. Understanding the complexity of gratitude from an intercultural perspective, considering why, saying Thank You is so important in U.S. culture, and understanding how the significance of gratitude can promote deeper cultural understanding in the exchange setting, can help enrich host family and student relationships.
Is it personal, or cultural? All humans share core traits or basic human nature. In addition, each person has their own individual personality. Our human nature is expressed through the ring of our personality. Our human nature and personality are then expressed through a person’s culture. Thinking about how we express ourselves this way can help us to understand why we might express appreciation so differently across cultures.
Gratitude in the United States.
The United States is well known for being explicit and emphatic when saying thank you, for even the smallest gesture by a friend, family member, or even stranger. We hear “Thank you” all around us in the US. It is considered an important tool to build strong, positive relationships. Children in the US are taught from a young age to express gratitude in many settings through body language, in writing, and verbally.
Gratitude Around the Globe
Many other cultures are more implicit with their gratitude and are less likely to express gratitude in such an overt way. For example, in India, it is considered too formal and even offensive to thank close family members or friends, because gratitude is implied. In China close friends and family are considered an extension of oneself, and saying thank you to yourself isn’t intuitive!
For more intercultural examples and information about gratitude through an intercultural lens, please watch this video and read this article about what Americans can learn from other cultures about the language of gratitude.
Bridging the Gap
Differing expectations of when and how gratitude should be expressed can lead to misunderstandings between host families and their hosted students, especially when there is an expectation from the host parent that their student will be grateful for their hospitality. While the student may well be grateful, they may not show it the way the family would like them to.
It is important that host families have a conversation with their student about what their expectations are when it comes to gratitude; saying thank you for a ride or a meal seems basic to a parent in the U.S. but may seem unnecessary to a student from a different cultural background. Without setting any expectations, the student will not understand why there is tension in the home and the relationship with their hosted family may become strained. This discussion will also be an opportunity for the host family to ask the student about practices and norms around gratitude in the student’s culture. Asking about this and other aspects of the student’s culture can convey that the host family is eager to learn more about the student’s culture and this kind of interchange can help their relationship deepen.
Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes to Express Gratitude
Understanding these cultural differences let’s consider how we can help exchange students develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to express gratitude as they navigate the many new aspects of American culture. Most skills will take time to catch on so host families are encouraged to be patient with their student as they have a lot to learn and take in with their new environment.
One important tool for students is leading by example, seeing what their host family is grateful for and how they express it, is a great way to learn. This may help students to recognize that saying thank you is an important part of American culture. Explain how Americans send thank you cards after important events, birthdays, or if something kind is done for them. This may be strange for people from different cultures as it can be viewed as an extravagant and unnecessary gesture. In addition to just saying thank you, Americans will often go further and be more effusive. Instead of stopping after a ‘thank you’, deep feelings of gratitude may be expressed by adding a compliment like, “you are amazing”.
Share some examples of the many ways gratitude can be expressed:
- I love when you ….
- It’s so nice of you to pick me up from sports every day.
- This means so much to me.
- You are so thoughtful.
- How did I get so lucky to live with a family like yours.
- You’re the best host mom I could have!
- You’re making my dreams come true.
- I appreciate you always driving me to school.
- Thank you for taking the time out of your day to pick me up.
- Thank you for letting me go out with my friends.
- I appreciate all that you do for me.
- Thank you for being so kind and sharing your room with me.
Americans also show gratitude through body language, physical touch, or doing something nice for the person they are grateful for. This can include, excited body language, giving a hug, or cleaning the dishes after dinner. Reminding students that certain types of body language, like crossing your arms when being spoken to, eye rolling, and complaining if you are asked to help, send a negative message. Positive body language includes eye contact, smiling, hugs, and showing excitement. Remember, some forms of expressing gratitude may be more comfortable for one cultural group while uncomfortable for another. Verbally expressing a thank you may be less comfortable than writing a small thank you note for example, and your student may not feel comfortable giving or receiving hugs.
Benefits of Gratitude
Reminding students that expressing gratitude can have positive repercussions may help them to understand the impact of gratitude in American culture. Some examples of ways in which the student and host family relationship may develop and benefit from the love and trust that is built through gratitude include:
- More freedom from host family
- Building upon your relationships
- Cultural understanding
While big shows of gratitude can seem silly, embarrassing, or unnecessary to some students as it is not their cultural norm, it is important to maintain an open dialogue on the topic of gratitude and how it makes people feel in the United States. This simple gesture has a way of making people feel appreciated and loved, enriching relationships can be built, and participants will likely be happier and see more positive growth in their host environment.
Activities to Practice Gratitude
Following are some fun activities for host families and students to do together to expand their understanding of and to express gratitude.
Collect a handful of stones and have family members, including the student, paint what they are grateful for together on the stones and then place them around the house, in the garden, on the porch, or in their rooms.
For example, host family, pets, school, etc
Place questions in a clear bowl on folded paper and each family member could choose one to answer or could be one person a night chooses one.
- Describe something lucky that happened to you last year and how your life improved.
- Describe a highlight from the year and what made it special. Why are you grateful for it?
- Share three positive things about your host student/host parents?
- Describe a special favor you received, how it helped you, and how it made you feel.
- Name someone you know who makes your life better and why.
- What do you appreciate having in the United States that you may not have at home? What do you appreciate at home that you may not have in the United States?
- Think of something you used today that other people may take for granted.
- What do you appreciate the most about the person sitting next to you?
- Describe something you are particularly grateful for in your life and why.
- Why are you grateful to have a hosted student?
- Describe something that you do often that makes you happy and why.
- How has your family changed for the better by adding a hosted student to the family?
- Describe something that happened this past week that you are grateful for and why.
- Name one kind thing someone in your host family did for you this week and why you are grateful for it.
- Describe something you have done that you are proud of and why.
Have pieces of paper handy (these can also be cut out into fun shapes like hearts or stars). This can be done separately or together, but the hosted student and host family members will write what they are grateful for about each other. This can include being grateful for driving them to school, doing chores, cleaning up after dinner, taking them to a restaurant, etc. You will then create a wall of gratitude in your home so the whole family can see. Each night or once a week, schedule a time to read one thing from the wall you are grateful for. Also, you can continuously add to the wall throughout the year of things the student did, or the host family did that they are grateful for.
This could even be a good opportunity to express expectations and write down what types of gratitude you are looking for. For example, saying thank you when dinner is served to folding the clean laundry if it was left on their bed.