Hello World!

by Rachel Pieh Jones on August 3, 2015

How do you greet people where you live?

I asked this question recently on Facebook because I was working on an essay: To Kiss or Not to Kiss? (check out that piece for a somewhat more thoughtful look at cross cultural greetings). I wanted to see what greetings were like around the world.

to kiss or not to kiss

Even though the kissing isn’t always smooth and sometimes results (my fault) in full on lip smacking with my friends (it tends to bond us), I’ve started to prefer it to hugs. I remember in France in my language class my husband tried to joke about the French being more sexual than Americans because of the kissing. The joke fell flat (as all jokes made in broken foreign languages tend to do) and now I’ve come to think the exact opposite.

A kiss is really a cheek brush (unless you make my mistakes or are greeted by a rural, elderly, nomadic woman – in that case, prepare for the real deal). But a hug? That’s full body contact, that’s a man’s arms around me and my body pressed against his (hence the rise of the side hug, which feels kind of awkward and half-hearted).

The comments on the Facebook thread were fascinating and while I hope you’ll read the more thoughtful essay about greetings, I wanted to simply share the variety of possibilities in saying, ‘hello’. (I didn’t link to each person, but if you’d like to find them and greet them Facebook style, you can find this thread on my Facebook page). Some comments I edited for length or clarity.

Malaysia, from Khalid: A traditional Malay greeting resembles a simple handshake, but incorporates both hands to initiate the greeting. The two people lightly grasp both hands and then bring both to rest, palms down, on their own chest. The gesture symbolizes goodwill and that you greet the other person with an open heart.

Kenya, from Denise: The usual greeting is “Habare za asa bui?” meaning “What is the news this morning?” or “Habare za mchana” for afternoon. Usually, it is shortened to “Habare.”

Nigeria, from Tina: Sanu, How was your night?

Nicaragua, from Amanda: Kiss on the right cheek, but more of a cheeks close together with slight kiss noise.

South Sudan, from Danielle and Lucy: a hand shake and ask “how are you?” and also “how is your family, home, job..” as a sign of respect you might shake hands while placing your left hand on your right arm. When good friends go to shake hands they often slap their hands together like a high five handshake combo.

Uganda, west Nile region, from Elizabeth: One tribe greets by grasping the right hand of the person bring greeted, then touching the person’s hand to the greeter’s chin, then forehead (or forehead, then chin.)

Thailand, from Dorette: A ‘wai’ – palms facing each other (like praying position) and you bend a little while saying ‘sawadeeka’ if you are a lady and ‘sawadee kap’ if you are a man.

Indonesia, from Mary: In rural Java, you say, “Good Morning, or afternoon, evening. Where are you going?” No kissing, seldom a hand shake or a hug. If you know the people the question is “Have you taken your bath yet?”

Paraguay, from Monica: “Air kiss” each cheek. Except men to men, they handshake.

Australia, from Kami: “GDay. How ya goin?” and a kiss on the cheek for a friend.

US, Minnesota, from Tamzan: In Minnesota, we only speak to people we know. (Similar to in Idaho, from Mere)

US, Maine, from Susan: As cars pass each other, drivers lift their index finger off the top of the steering wheel. If the drivers are friends, there is also a kind of backwards nod.

Philippines, from Mary: Filipino greeting— KUMUSTA

South Korea, from Shannon: Seoul: “Anyanghasaiyo” with a bow (usually just a head bow, but if the person you’re greeting is a generation older, you bow at the waist, even repeatedly)

US, Hawaii, from Shannon: More formally, it’s a kiss on the right cheek (cheeks touching, air kiss) for girl-to-girl and girl-to-boy, but never boy-to-boy. Casually, it’s calling “howzit” loudly with a shaka.

Switzerland, from Melissa: “Guete Morge” (in the morning) otherwise “Grüezi” or “Grüezi mittenand” (the last part means to everyone…so if you are greeting more than one person). What you do: say those words if you are passing folks on the stairwell, on the hiking trail, and keep on walking. If you are meeting up with people on purpose: if you are acquainted well, its three alternating kisses on the cheeks. If you are friends, then a hug.

Ethiopia, from Sherri: Men shake hands and shoulder bump. Women at least 3 kisses on the cheek.

Holland, from Olga: “Hoi!” And it’s usually three kisses.

Romania, from Alice: Before about 9am: “Buna dimineata,” from 9am to about 6pm: “Buna ziua,” after 6pm: “Buna seara.” Among evangelical Christians these are replaced by: Pace (peace). Two women will kiss each cheek. A man with a woman he knows well may also involve a double cheek kiss. Men shake hands.

Afghanistan, from Caroline: Women to women or men to men, three kisses on the cheek, right, left right. Hold hands and say at the same time, pretty much over the top of one another “how are, are you well, how is your family? how is your mother? is everyone well? Praise be to God.” You say all that with few pauses and then, if you really want to know you take a breath and say, “You. Are you well?” If a woman or man is greeting the other gender, no eye contact, no touching, place your hand over your heart and ask the same rapid questions, but no personal follow up.

Afrikaans culture, from Jocelyn: Shake hands with people you don’t know but with friends it’s a quick kiss on the lips.

Korea and Cambodia, from Cassie: Bow and say hello using different forms of the word depending on your relationship with the person you’re greeting. The deeper the bow the more respect is shown, so to elders and superiors you bow from the waist and to peers you may bow just your head. There are also different versions of the word “hello” signifying formality similar to English (i.e. hello, hi, hey). In Cambodia hold your palms together pointing upward close to your body and bow slightly. The height at which you hold your hands signifies levels of respect. To peers you put your hands at chest-level, to parents and teachers at mouth-level, to the king at forehead level.

Somali/Afar culture in Djibouti, from Rahma: Women and men shake hands and kiss the hand of the person they’re greeting. When you’re greeting an older person you kiss the forehead/top of the head. The younger greeter is always the one to stand up first to greet an old person. In cities, 2 or 3 kisses on the cheeks, handshakes, or “Salam” with your hand on your heart.

US, deep South, from Gillian: A brief hug among women and/or sometimes a sort-of-kiss on the cheek with older ladies. Men greet with a firm handshake or a hug. Lots of “sir” and “ma’am” whenever talking with someone even slightly older.

I think it is obvious that greeting people is extremely important and how to do it is one of the first things we need to learn and incorporate as we move abroad. But it also gets confusing, especially in areas with multiple traditions mashed together.

Rhonda wraps it up pretty well: We are at an international school in South America. So, with the nationals, we either kiss on the cheek or shake hands -depending on the situation. With the North Americans we shake hands or hug and with the Asians we nod, shake hands or kiss on the cheek. Those are our three largest populations. The rest fall somewhere in the middle. It can be kind of complicated.

How do you greet people where you live?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Such a good observation — the kiss is actually less intimate than the hug. My sister married someone from the East coast of the U.S., and apparently the kiss-greeting is normal there. Surprised me as a mid-westerner at first and seemed so European. I forget you can cross cultures even within a single country 🙂

  • I’m in Thailand, and when it comes to Thai friends and colleagues, we wai (as described in the article). As someone who likes to hug or kiss on the cheek, it was (still is) hard for me to get used to a no-touch environment! Yet I prefer that to the traditional South African greeting (where I am originally from). Fortunately, the culture around greetings seems to be changing back home, but the traditional South African way of greeting is to kiss on the lips! Good thing cultures do change… 😉

  • PeruvianNomad

    I live in Peru, here it’s a kiss in the air in right of cheek for girls, (little weird when I went back to USA and wanted to do that out of habit!) for guys, it’s a handshake, or a hug if it’s someone close. You are required to greet everyone in the circle, or room, when you enter,. and also if the person’s hand is dirty, sometimes the guys will do a wrist, roman clasp style greeting, where you grab each others wrist, instead of the hand, sometimes they do that when they think their hand is too dirty. Kind of interesting really.

  • Anna Wegner

    I’m in the Republic of Congo. The typical greeting is a handshake, and you can put your left hand on the inside of your right elbow to show respect. There’s also a complicated handshake series that is more respectful, but I never initiate that one. I find it confusing. Men sometimes show friendship by leaning in to touch foreheads while handshaking. And a few people do the cheek kisses or at least cheek touches while air kissing. If someone’s hand is dirty, they will offer you their wrist or forearm, although I have had people take their finger out of their nose to shake hands, and I’ve wished I could go for the wrist instead!
    Another thing is that you do this greeting to everyone, every time. No casual hellos and then jumping into a serious conversation. Everyone in the group must be appropriately greeted, and then you chat about their health, family, etc before anything else.
    It was weird for me when we were back in the US, because I would feel like I was being impolite by greeting people more casually.

  • Traditionally in Ukrainian churches men greet each other by kissing on the lips! That was a bit of a shock to me as a 17 year old boy the first time I got kissed on the lips was by a 70 year old man with a 5 o’clock shadow!

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