Imagine a close family member has you over for dinner. After you get home, realizing you forgot to say thank you for the meal, you make a quick call to express your gratitude.

Depending on where you are in the world, this call could be welcomed—or considered strange or even rude, suggests research by Chicago Booth PhD student Jiaqi Yu and Booth’s Shereen Chaudhry, who examined how Americans and Chinese people express gratitude to those close to them. “Expressing gratitude may come with more social implications than people realize,” Chaudhry says. “Depending on your culture, more expression of gratitude is not always better.”

Many past research findings have linked expressions of gratitude to positive outcomes, but it’s important to keep cultural and relational differences in mind, Yu and Chaudhry point out. This is true for personal and business relationships as well as in more significant interactions such as international negotiation.

China is a collectivist culture, which places more value on making sacrifices and assuming obligations for the group than do individualist cultures such as the United States. These differences, established by decades of research, prompted the researchers’ inquiry.

In an initial field investigation, Yu and Chaudhry coded three years’ worth of recordings of acceptance speeches for major movie and music awards in the US and China. For six ceremonies in all, including a total of 335 award winners, the researchers tabulated whom the winners thanked in their speeches. While nearly everyone thanked someone, about 70 percent of Americans named people close to them, such as their family members. Among Chinese people, that number was only about 20 percent, the researchers find. This suggests a cultural difference in thanking close others, at least in public, they argue.

In a lab-based experiment, the researchers had adults in the US and in China recall a time when someone close to them did something nice for them. They were then given the option of sending the person a real two-minute audio message of thanks via email or doing a more tedious three-minute computer task. Although completing the two tasks paid participants the same, only 32 percent of the Chinese participants chose the shorter gratitude recording over the longer computer task, compared with 57 percent of the Americans.

In China, participants were more willing to incur a cost—by performing a longer and more boring task—to avoid sending a thank-you note to someone in their close orbit, Chaudhry explains.

Award speeches highlight cultural differences

In a separate experiment, the cross-country difference in thanking disappeared when participants were considering more distant people, such as neighbors or strangers, the researchers find. “It seems paradoxical that Chinese people thanked close others less than Americans, but they thanked strangers the same,” she acknowledges. “The reason is that Chinese people expect more from their close others than Americans do, while both expect very little from more casual or distant relationships.”

In another experiment, Chinese participants were more likely than American ones to say that certain actions, such as paying the bus fare for a relative or friend who forgot a wallet, were simply a duty, or what a close other is expected to do. Chinese participants were also much less likely to say that the close others should be thanked for such good deeds.

In general, expressing gratitude conveys that someone has exceeded what you expected of them, the researchers write. You probably expect more from a person you know well than from someone you barely know. Therefore, if invited for dinner, you would feel and express less gratitude to a family member for hosting than you would to a stranger. This is why—particularly in Chinese culture, which has especially high expectations for close others—a thank you could lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Thanking family for dinner might signal that you expect only as much from them as you do from strangers, which could be taken as an insult if they understand your relationship to be close.

“Expressions of gratitude for deeds that are perceived as obligatory could signal a mismatch in relationship expectations, and thus, relational distance,” the researchers write. “As a result, gratitude expressions in those cases could be seen as aversive or undesirable.”

Indeed, a final experiment demonstrates that Chinese participants preferred when close others used less direct expressions of gratitude—a preference that didn’t extend to people they didn’t know as well.

Thanking people, it seems, isn’t just about expressing thanks; it is a signal of the expected strength of a relationship. In some circumstances, showing appreciation for a close friend or family member could be perceived as a demotion of sorts and damage your bond.

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