Xiaochen and Sawako’s stories above on greetings in China and Japan made me realize across our nations, we have some very different greetings, but there are also some similarities.
Although, in an ever-expanding international community, we might all bow as a mark of respect for the other person, simply bowing in an all-business meeting between Americans, for example, would be unusual. Instead, a handshake is normally preferred. In England, just bowing would be taken as a mark of servility. As an age-old tradition, we bow and curtsy to the Queen for example, but not in a business meeting or to our friends and family.
In England, many friends and family would be greeted with a hug and even a kiss on the cheek. Depending on the closeness to the other person and perhaps the length of time between seeing each other, the hug may be very strong. I recently welcomed my sister who I haven’t seen for six months, with a big hug, and did the same thing when she left two weeks later. We were almost stuck together both times; the hug was so tight and strong. The hug meant, “I miss you a lot, and wish we lived closer.” In contrast, a hug with a friend I walk with every week is much looser and is more like saying “Thank you for a lovely walk.” Again, in contrast, a warm hug for someone who has just lost a friend or family member, would also mean, “Please accept my sympathy for your loss.”
In all these cases, the body language used has meaning, but without using any words. That made me think of Xiaochen’s description of a greeting that related to the situation. There are times where the spoken greeting depends on the situation. “Happy Birthday.” or “Congratulations.” seem obvious. How about “I love the dress you are wearing.” or “Did you get a chance to sample the desserts yet?” All of these phrases act as greetings and immediately open the conversation with the other person.
Martha shared with me two links that give some ideas for simply saying hello or goodbye.
Some of these words made me think of just two ways we have of saying goodbye in England that totally confused people when I first arrived in the US:
It was my first class at the Ann Arbor Art Association and on leaving, I said “Cheerio.” which is one way of saying goodbye. I was met with completely blank faces from the other students. Nobody said a word. I found out later that Cheerios was the name of a breakfast cereal and they obviously could not work out why I was suddenly blurting out the name. I laughed a lot when I realized what had happened.
Another way of starting to say goodbye amongst people you are familiar with is “I will love you and leave you.” The phrase precedes an eventual “Goodbye.”, “Bye for now.”, “Bye bye.”, etc., and is a perfectly innocent phrase. To someone who has not heard it before though, it could be construed as something completely different. I’m cautious when using this phrase now!
I had the privilege of attending a Naturalization Ceremony last week where 75 people from across many nations became American citizens. Once the Oath of Allegiance was read and everybody was sworn in, the judge (a male) handed out the naturalization certificates one by one. Everybody came up to accept the certificate from the judge who offered his hand for a congratulations handshake. Several women from Islamic nations declined his hand, and instead put their right hand over their heart while accepting the certificate in their left hand. I thought this was a very good way to still show a mark of respect and say thank you, but avoid the obvious problem they had in shaking his hand.
This also got me thinking about greeting people where you are uncertain of how to behave. My sister, while visiting met one of my friends for the second time and asked me how she should greet her. My answer was to take the lead from my friend who simply said, “Hello, it’s good to see you again.” I think that might be good advice for us all in our international community while still taking care to avoid what is forbidden or unnatural to your own culture or faith. Take the lead from the other person, whether to bow or hug, or simply say “Hello.” If it is forbidden for you to touch, a simple gesture, like putting your hand on your heart could suffice. I’m no expert here, but I hope this helps.
This turned out to be a much longer article than I’d planned. I hope you enjoyed it. For now, I’d like to say “Cheerio.” until we meet again.