October 10, 2022

Greetings: The Cultural Context of Saying Hello

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Saying hello seems pretty straightforward, and something we seldom think about unless we are in an unusual cultural context. When do we offer a greeting, and when we do, what do we say? Recent travels abroad made me think about these questions as I interacted with people who spoke different languages and had 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 might think of these scripts as a series of words and actions to take in particular situations.

Hello pic

Let’s say I encounter a stranger while taking a walk here in the U.S. In some cases, I might say “hello” and it is polite for the stranger to respond in kind. If they are being extra friendly, they might follow with “how are you” and I am expected to say “good, how are you?” We follow this script even though we usually don’t really want to know how the stranger is doing, nor would we want to share our current emotional state. It is basically an innocuous time filler.

But in another cultural context this interaction might not be so simple. First, the language might be different. While many people worldwide understand English and the word “hello,” using it could create an unintended effect. It is pretty simple to learn the local word for “hello” when traveling to another country, and not doing so might be interpreted as a sign of disrespect.

While traveling to the Swiss Alps, an international destination where I heard multiple languages, the local language was German. This (potentially) made greetings pretty easy, as people often say “hallo” in German. However, in Swiss German “Grüezi” is the common greeting. I learned this before traveling, but my American ear would hear something like “Clutesah.” The first few times I heard it I took a few beats before processing what the person meant. This might have been mistaken for rudeness.

While hiking, we passed many people speaking different languages. “Hallo” was my go-to, but occasionally I would hear “bon jour” or “salut” (French is one of the official languages of Switzerland), hello from native English speakers, or an occasional “Buongiorno.” In Montreal, a bilingual city where we had a layover, it was common for clerks to greet customers with the combination “bon jour, hi” as an all-inclusive greeting.

At an international destination with many tourists, the rules for these interactions might be loosened a bit. In one encounter at a restaurant, I said “Hallo, wie geht’s” to our server when he came to our table, or “hello, how are you,” following the social script I recounted above. He looked a bit taken aback but smiled.

No, it wasn’t my stunning German pronunciation that surprised him. Asking a stranger “how are you” is not part of the cultural script in every country. In fact, it might seem overly personal or intrusive. I knew this, but these scripts are so well ingrained that I slipped up. I occasionally slipped into English “hellos” when I wasn’t intending to. Other cultural scripts might be gendered; in some cultures, when a man and woman are together it might be seen as impolite for a man to address the woman or make eye contact with women. Interacting with children has its own set of rules too, especially if strangers approach children.

Most of the time these interactions were easy, but I observed on one occasion an interaction that went wrong. While in a grocery store in France, a woman who was not in line approached the check-out clerk during a busy time and started asking the clerk questions in English. The clerk, who was helping me at the time (I had greeted the clerk with a quick bon jour but said nothing else; I was busy bagging my own groceries which is the custom in Europe), looked at me to share annoyance at the situation, shook her head and said, “Française!”

I don’t know much French, but I knew enough about the context to surmise that the interruption was particularly rude because it was all in English. I said “Bonne Journée” (have a good day) as I left with my groceries, exhausting my knowledge of French but knowing enough to have a pleasant intercultural exchange.

Greetings aren’t always straightforward in the U.S. either. Sometimes people pass on sidewalks and say nothing, a practice called civil inattention. There are people I regularly pass during morning walks who barely even glance up, while there are others who always say hello, nod, or wave. When to know to say hi isn’t always easy to figure out. Certainly, 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 do know people we don’t say hello, something more common in the mask era, as I wrote about earlier this year. Saying hello might involve more interaction than we are up for at a given time.

Email greetings are usually pretty straightforward, often starting like a letter with Hi Karen, Hello Karen, or Dear Karen, but my spam folder is filled with "Hello Dear" greetings which are overly familiar and not the way people typically address me. Especially since they allegedly are from a bank, the Federal Reserve, or the Director of the FBI. As Jonathan Wynn wrote several years ago, sometimes greeting a professor strikes the wrong tone, both in the classroom and on email. Complicating matters, some instructors want to be called by their first name while others do not. 

Sometimes a hello may seem like just a hello. But greeting others reveals much more than a simple “hi” might first suggest.

Photo courtesy of the author

Comments

In Montreal the bonjour-hi isn't only about being inclusive, it also sends the message that the speaker is bilingual and can serve you in either language.

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