Editors’ Note from Rachel & Olivia: We noticed that many international students comment on the nature of American greetings. Why do Americans ask people how they are without waiting for an answer? Why do they smile at complete strangers? We decided to explore the puzzling, yet friendly nature of American greetings in a workshop. After reflecting on what American greetings feel like for the newly arrived here in the US and collecting some fun greetings on campus (see video above), we asked students to tell us a little bit about more about how to greet people appropriately in their home countries. We invite you to add your own perspective in the comments.
There is a set phrase for greetings among Koreans: “did you have lunch/dinner?” When people ask, “hey, did you eat something?,” they don’t expect you to answer this question. It is not an actual question but a set phrase to show your intimacy. Because, contrary to Americans who are willing to smile and say hello even to strangers, Koreans only usually greet someone who they are familiar with already, they frequently ask “did you have lunch/dinner?” instead of saying “how are you?”
Though American style greetings are warm and very welcoming (in my point of view), it may look so strange in my country. In South Korea, people do not say ‘hi’ or ‘hello,’ or even nod to strangers. If you do so, there is a high chance of being ignored; so, if you know you’re a sensitive person, I recommend not saying hello to strangers when you get to South Korea. It is not because Koreans are coldhearted; we greet our friends, relatives, and people we know the same way as Americans do.
In Mexico we think of Americans as cold or distant but only because in Latin America we are overly affectionate. We are used to hugging and giving one kiss on the cheek every time you say hello and goodbye to a friend or even when you are being introduced to a new group of people. In America, people usually keep their distance from strangers and acquaintances and say hello from afar.
Americans are very friendly and socially open. In France, exchanges and dialogue among people are only between family or close friends never with strangers. For instance, a friend visited me from Paris and was intimated at the beginning because everybody was saying “hey” to her. I explained to her that it was something natural and cultural in the United states.
The way Americans say hello can be perceived very differently by other cultures. When American say hello or meet someone for the first time, they usually ask “how are you” and add a word of affection at the end, such as “honey,” “sugar,” or “sweetie.” By the French and Sierra Leonean cultures, this way of saying hello can often be seen as too friendly, not formal, or even rude.
In the French culture, when meeting someone for the first time, you would normally say “hello” by giving a firm handshake. Depending on the relationship with the individual, after the first time, it is then appropriate to kiss him/her on the cheek as a way to salute them. In “Salone” culture, the culture of Sierra Leone, when meeting someone for the first time you must make eye contact and shake hands. You also must ask, “hello, how de body?” which asks about your wellbeing. Elderly people are not required to answer the question, but younger speakers must respond, “de body well.”
In China, if a stranger smiles at us, we might think that there are funny things on us that make he/she laugh(smile) or he/she wants to start a conversation with us. If it’s not the situation mentioned above, and a stranger smiles at us while passing by on the street, we will feel a little bit weird. Normally, a smile is a sign of starting a conversation in China between strangers. Actually I think greeting by smiles is fine. The thing that took me more time to adapt to is the use of “how are you.” Now I know that it’s just another way to say Hi!
If we meet people for the first time, we would say “hello” (“ni hao”/ 你好) in Chinese out of respect. But if two friends bump into each other, they would greet each other by saying something like “have you eaten yet.” If two friends who haven’t met for a long time meet, they would say “how is it going,” which is very similar to how Americans greet each other.
I know that a smile from an American is trying to be friendly and I want to smile back too. Every Chinese student wants to make friends and know more about American friends. But we are not used to or comfortable doing that! While it is natural for an American to smile and keep eye contact while talking, it is not natural to me even if I want to be friendly, and this is seems to be the sign of not being friendly. And I don’t smile at strangers in China too. I will feel strange if a stranger smiles at me, and based on the crowds and large numbers in China (Imagine you are in Times Square all the time), it is hard to smile at everyone.
Generally Americans in Europe (or at least in German speaking countries can come across in two different ways when someone meets them for the first time). Either they appear as open, friendly, and extroverted people, if their interest in the other person comes across as sincere. However, if sometimes they talk very loudly and smile much more than others, it can come across as insincere or superficial (not so much impolite though…at least I think).
Altogether, American style greetings differ not as much from European ones as much as they do from many Asian ones. Among young people (particularly college students), I have noticed one thing though. In the US, they tend to use a simple “Hi” or “Bye” as a way of greeting each other. Sometimes a person waves their hand in addition, and every now and then people hug. In Europe, people like to hug, shake hands, and give kisses on the cheeks (like the French “bisou”) a lot more.
In India, people don’t greet each other as much as is in the US (the only foreign country I visited so far). I guess its because we are not used to it. Of course if someone comes to our house as a guest, we greet them very well asking how their family is and what they are upto and so on. But we don’t greet a stranger on the street with “good morning.” I have had encounters here where some one wishes me a “good day” on the street and that relieves my stress and gives me some hope. But also it becomes very cliche: Sometimes people that just say, “how’s it going?” just like that as if they don’t really mean to ask you.
Since I came from “the land of smiles,” smiling to strangers is not new to me. However, saying “How are you?” to strangers is not common. In Thailand, we don’t say hi to people who are just passing by.
I went to a multicultural and international high school, so I am pretty used to smiling and saying hi to people. However, back home in Cambodia, we hardly greet strangers. We sometimes don’t even stare or look into their faces since they may regard this as an disrespectful act. While meeting friends or folks we know, we greet them by just asking how they are doing. If they are at a far distance, we will just wave at them. Saying hi is quite uncommon.Suppose I go home and greet people using the American way of greeting (smiling to everyone passing by), they would think I was having psychological problems.