Commentary on Greetings

US-American students are often used to being very casual and off-hand when greeting friends or acquaintances. So when they greet someone with the phrase, "How are you?" they do not really expect a substantive answer, and do not normally want that simple inquiry to lead to a long conversation. A reply of  “Fine!” is all that is necessary. What they are doing is simply acknowledging that they know each other and care enough to recognize the fact verbally. This is called  "phatic" communication and refers to conversational speech used to communicate sociability more than convey information. However, in many other societies, especially those that we call "high context" cultures, greetings can be extremely important, even when they seem to US-Americans as ritualistic and repetitive. Think of it as "phatic" communication on steroids.

If you do not pay attention to how to give and receive proper greetings, as well as understanding how to take proper leave of people, you can damage your reputation as a well-mannered person. Worse, you could be constantly sending negative messages you do not even intend because you are paying too little attention to the social niceties that surround everyday interactions. In many high context cultures, like this West African example, it is important to take the time to really connect with a person before continuing on your way. It is a sign of respect and sincerity about the relationship.

Cultures around the globe, including those as culturally different as Japan, Indonesia, India, Guinea, South Africa, and Argentina, will all judge a newcomer on how quickly and well they can learn appropriate greeting behavior. You should aim to learn the local ways as soon as you can, because you will use them frequently, even dozens of times a day! Best to do it right.


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