Polar Opposite

I frequently write about common courtesy, particularly those magical words “thank you.” But according to Peter Freuchen, a Danish explorer, anthropologist and writer who lived for a time with the Inuit people in Greenland, there are those who actually think it’s nicer not to say thanks.

As Freuchen explained it in Book of the Eskimos (1961), expressing gratitude was a no-no in his Greenland community because it would show you’re indebted to the do-gooder. If instead a generous transaction takes place without a thank you, then no one is overtly calculating who owes what. Neighbours simply step in as needed without expecting the favour to be returned.

It was seen as an immensely human way of doing someone a solid.

This was Freuchen’s lesson learned after his walrus-hunting trip failed miserably, his stomach was grumbling to beat the band, and another hunter shared with him his successful haul. When Freuchen tried to say thank you, the hunter stopped him in his tracks with this tirade:

“Up in our country we are human! And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.”

According to David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, this anecdote is often bandied about in anthropology circles. When folks downplay a favour, when they don’t treat it as anything special, it means they aren’t keeping score. There’s no tit for tat. And according to Freuchen’s Inuit friends in Greenland, that’s how it is to be a generous, evolved species.

Call me primitive. But personally, I still like a good old-fashioned gracias.

Book cover

It was a politically incorrect book title. But he couldn’t have been such a bad lad if his hunting buddies were willing to share their walrus.

4 responses to “Polar Opposite

  1. I’ve seen this at work in small ways, even in our backwards society, even in the last place you’d expect – New York City. When my wife and I first visited the city back in 2005, we were both surprised by the warmth and humanity we were shown by New Yorkers. For example, someone would come up behind my wife and help her up the curb (after asking how to do it right) and then simply be on their way to work. No “thanks” expected. NICE!

  2. Interesting, Steve! It’s funny – I like expressing thanks, and I like hearing it (who doesn’t?) from my immediate family, but I get uncomfortable when a stranger gushes gratitude. Maybe that connects to the Greenland and New York experiences somehow.

  3. Hmmm…I’m with you. When I help someone out in whatever way, I guess I just like a simple thank you. I’m not expecting anything else in return. I just like to know that you appreciated a little assistance. I’m not looking for you to return a favor or feel that you are now indebted to me.

  4. You’re right, Dennis – I think it’s just a bit of courtesy or consideration, in some cultures at least. It’s interesting to read about different perspectives in various parts of the world!

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