One more from the “Metropolitan Diary” in yesterday’s NYT: a letter from Susan Rosenfeld illustrating some cross-cultural differences:

Having just completed two of the four years I would serve in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I returned to my old haunts near Columbia University to visit friends.

As a new Peace Corps volunteer, I had been chastised by the postmaster of the African town in which I served by immediately stating my business (asking for stamps) before going through a long series of stylized greetings. Chastened, I vowed always to “greet first.”

But after 27 months in West Africa, I forgot that New York is New York, not Niger. I waited my turn in the rapidly moving, efficient line at the post office. Soon it was my turn.

Me: “Hi. How are you?”

Postmaster: “Fine.”

Me: “How is everyone in your family?”

Postmaster: “What …?”

Me: “How is your work?”

Postmaster: “Lady, do you want to buy stamps or have a conversation?”

Once again, chastised in the post office.

Some years ago, while Ann Daingerfield Zwicky was teaching English as a Second Language, she had a student, a charming young man, who was newly arrived from West Africa. For a couple of weeks, she would come across him on campus between classes, the two of them bound in different directions. It was often clear that he was hurrying, sometimes practically running, to get to class on time.

Nevertheless, he was obliged, by the customs he had grown up with, to stop and exchange a series of greetings with her — much like the ones Rosenfeld reports on above. How was her health? And her family’s health? And how was her work? And so on.

Eventually, she pulled him aside after class and explained that customs were different in this country and that in most circumstances simply saying “Hello” and maybe “How are you?” would suffice, unless there was time for socialization. I believe he remarked that he was having trouble getting used to the way Americans treated time, not to mention socialization (“hanging out” or “chatting”) versus greeting.


2 Responses to “Greetings”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    I had a Russian teacher – born in Russia – observe to me once that Russians stop and have a long greeting/chat the first time they see each other in a day, but otherwise, unless they have something that needs saying, they ignore each other; Americans, on the other hand, rarely say much more than ‘Hi, how’s it going?’ – but they say it EVERY TIME they see each other, and if you walk past a friend without acknowledging them, they are hurt and/or insulted.

    Customs are fascinating.

  2. Sam Says:

    On a brief visit to Mali I observed more-or-less the same greeting customs, with the following properties:

    The day was divided into four parts: morning, noonish, afternoon, evening.

    You had to perform the greeting exchange with each person you saw once per period; after that, if you re-encountered the same person in the same period, you could just wave/say “Hi”.

    In the morning before washing, you were invisible: nobody would force you to perform a greeting exchange before washing.

    You had to perform a complete greeting exchange with each person, so if a group of N people came together, it was obligatory to perform N*(N-1)/2 greeting exchanges. (Though as N got larger than 5 or so, the greeting exchanges became quite truncated.)

    It was necessary to tell the truth. At one point I was up in the morning, but my wife was sleeping in because she was a bit sick (a mild pneumonia, it turned out). I neighbor asked after her health and I responded “She’s fine.” — not having the ability to say, she’s a bit sick. Later when the neighbor found out, she told me off (gently).

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