Saying hello seems pretty simple, and we rarely think about it unless we find ourselves in an unusual cultural context. When do we say hello and when do we say what? Recent trips abroad have made me think about these questions as I interacted with people who speak different languages and have different cultural customs.
We usually don’t have to think much about these questions because we have cultural and social scripts that guide our behavior when interacting with others. We can think of these scripts as a series of words and actions to be taken in specific situations.
Let’s say I bump into a stranger while walking here in the U.S. In some cases, I can say “hello” and it’s polite for the stranger to respond in kind. If they’re being extra friendly, they might say “how are you” and I have to say “great, how are you?” We follow this script, even though we usually don’t really want to know how a stranger is doing, nor do we want to share our current emotional state. It’s basically a harmless time filler.
However, in another cultural context, this interaction may not be so simple. First, the language may vary. Although many people around the world understand the English language and the word “hello”, using it can have an unintended effect. It’s quite easy to learn the local word for “hello” when traveling to another country, and failure to do so can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect.
Traveling to the Swiss Alps, an international destination where I heard several languages, the local language was German. This (probably) made greeting quite easy, as people often say “hello” in German. But in Swiss German”Gruok” is a common greeting. I learned this before the trip, but my American ear would hear something like “Clutesah. The first few times I heard it, it took me a few hits before I realized what the person meant. It could be mistaken for rudeness.
On the hike we passed many people speaking different languages. “Hello” was my goal, but occasionally I heard “Hello” or “Health” (French is one of the official languages of Switzerland), hello from an English native speaker, or occasionally “good morning. In Montreal, the bilingual city where we had a layover, it was customary for clerks to greet customers using a combination of “hellohello’ as an all-inclusive greeting.
In an international destination with a large tourist population, these rules of interaction may be slightly relaxed. During one meeting in a restaurant I said:Hello how are you” to our server when he came to our table, or “hello, how are you” in the social scenario I described above. He looked a little surprised, but smiled.
No, it wasn’t my amazing German pronunciation that surprised him. Asking a stranger “how are you” is not part of the cultural script in every country. In fact, it may seem too personal or intrusive. I knew that, but these scripts are so ingrained that I slipped. I occasionally slipped in an English hello when I didn’t mean to. Other cultural scripts may be gendered; in some cultures, when a man and a woman are together, it may be considered impolite for a man to approach a woman or make eye contact with women. Communication with children also has its own rules, especially if children are approached by strangers.
Most of the time these interactions were easy, but there was one time where I noticed an interaction fail. While at a grocery store in France, a woman who was not in line approached a cashier during a busy time and began asking her questions in English. The clerk who helped me at that time (I greeted the clerk quickly hello but said nothing more; I was busy bagging my groceries as usual in Europe) looked at me to share my annoyance at the situation, shook my head and said:Françeasy!”
I don’t know much French, but I knew enough about the context to think that the interruption was especially rude because it was all in English. I said “Good dayThis ise” (have a nice day) as I left with my groceries, using my French but enough to communicate cross-culturally.
The greeting is not always clear in the US either. Sometimes people pass by on the sidewalks and say nothing, a practice called civil inattention. There are people I pass regularly on my morning walk who barely look up, while others always say hello, nod or wave. Figuring out when to say hello isn’t always easy. Of course, in a busy urban area, we probably wouldn’t say hello to people we see if we don’t know them. Sometimes even if we to do Knowing people we don’t say hello to is something more common in the mask era, which I wrote about earlier this year. Greetings can involve more communication than we are ready for at a given time.
email mail greetings are usually pretty simple, often starting with Hi Karen, Hello Karen, or Dear Karen, but my spam folder is filled with “Hello dear” greetings, which are all too familiar and not how people usually address me. Especially since they’re supposedly from a bank, the Federal Reserve Bank, or the director of the FBI. As Jonathan Wynn wrote a few years ago, sometimes greeting a professor sets the wrong tone, both in the classroom and in email. by post Complicating matters is that some instructors prefer to be called by name while others do not.
Sometimes a greeting can seem like just a hello. But greeting others reveals much more than a simple “hello” might initially suggest.
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