The concept of “Bunkhun” as an account for the act of responding to thanks in Thai culture

Natthaporn Panpothong, Siriporn Phakdeephasook

Department of Thai, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

WS132: Cultural Values and Language Behaviour: Focus on Asia

Responding to thanks is one of the acts that helps maintain the smooth interpersonal relation between that thanker and the thankee. On the other hand, Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987: 67) point out that responses to thanks can be face-threatening to the speaker’s negative face since s/he may feel constrainted to minimize the thanker’s indebtedness.

In Thai society, responding to thanks can be face-threatening to the speaker only in the case where the thanker is of equal or lower status and not in the “Bunkhun” (debt of gratitude) network such as an acquaintance, a maid, or a stranger. But it is not considered to be offending to the speaker’s face when the thanker is in the status of “Phuu mee phrakhun” (a person to whom one owes a debt of gratitude) such as a teacher. In the latter case, the thankee faces a different difficulty. That is, how to minimize the debt without implicating that the thanker is indebted to him or her.

The concepts of “Bunkhun” and “Katanyuu” are long-established in Thai society. One should “katanyuu” or ‘to feel appreciative and pay back to those who are “phuu mee phrakhun.” In the “bunkhun” network, teachers are those who are highly respected. According to the Thai didactic texts, teachers are the ones who selflessly pass on knowledge to students. With that knowledge, students could be able to make their own living and might later become successful. Receiving thanks from a teacher to whom a student feels indebted, s/he is put in a difficult situation to react tactfully. That is, the student has to show acceptance for the act of thanking but not to accept the sense of indebtedness conveyed together with the expression. Owing to such conflict, responding to thanks in Thai culture is a complicated linguistic behavior worthwhile for a close analysis.

This study aims at examining how Thai speakers respond to an expression of gratitude and how the concept of “bunkhun” affects the strategy selection. The Discourse Completion Test (DCT) including two different situations—1) when a thanker is a teacher, and 2) when a thanker is an acquaintance—is adopted for data collection. It is expected that the findings will shed light on the relationship between “bunkhun,” one of the crucial values in Thai culture and the Thai ways of communication.

Session: Workshop (part 2)
Cultural Values and Language Behaviour: Focus on Asia
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 18