May 022012

I’ve mentioned before that something that used to surprise me is that when that an American sees a random person walking along the street, they’re quite likely to ask, ‘How are you doing?’ This is someone they don’t know and who they’re unlikely to meet again. Aside from the intrusiveness of the question, do they really want to know?

Foreign visitors are often surprised by American friendliness too. ‘Is it fake?’ they ask. I don’t think so. I think it’s rather like a Tagalog speaker who greets people with ‘Where are you going?’ expecting the answer ‘Over there’; or a Taiwanese speaker who greets you with ‘Have you eaten yet?’, when they have no intention of inviting you for a meal; In China, a greeting might go ‘Old Zhang, are you busy today?’ Rather than ‘Less of the old, please’ the standard response is ‘Very busy’ or ‘Not very busy’. What we’re looking at here are rituals, procedures we all follow without thinking about them.

The ritual for greeting a passer-by is different in the UK. As a rule, we don’t. It’s not that we want to be unsociable but they might be engaged in their own thoughts and we wouldn’t want to intrude. Should something embarrassing happen, like our eyes accidentally meeting, a brief nod or ‘Morning’ enables us both to swiftly pass on.

The British non-intrusion approach and also operates when we’re at an event like a party, even though everyone knows the purpose for being there is to socialize. After fortifying ourselves with a couple of glasses of wine, we might signal our willingness to talk by passing a comment on the weather, or food or something happening in the room at the time. But we haven’t yet mastered the art of going up to strangers, sticking out our hand and saying, ‘Hi I’m Vicki from Pennsylvania.’ I was astonished with the aplomb with which Americans handled that when I came here.

Another similar post on farewells:


 Posted by at 12:30 pm

  8 Responses to “Greeting rituals”

  1. Hi Vickie:
    Good post on an interesting subject. I like the phrase Bronislaw Malinowsky came up with to describe greeting rituals: “Phatic communion.”
    Many people make the mistake of assuming that the other person is interested in the details of one’s health when he or she asks: “How are you?”
    The phatic utterance is a ritualized way of indicating awareness of the other person’s existence. I think that an American is no more interested in starting a conversation with a stranger than a Brit; the difference in the response lies in the degree of self-consciousness and the artifices used to deal with them.
    The British, from my observation, become rather flustered and tongue-tied; Americans become very embarrassed, eliciting the too-hearty expressions of camaraderie which are so off-putting to many foreigners – especially the British.
    By the way, how are you? How’s the family? Read any good books lately? Do you think Romney’s got a chance? Can you believe how fast that guy was driving? Sure is a nice sunny day! Did they say anything about rain? We sure could use some!
    I try to ratchet the ritual down to a nod. Occasionally I’ll greet a stranger with “How ya doin’?” But I don’t really care.

  2. Thanks so much, Marc. I love your description of the tongue-tied Brits and I can see why Americans would feel obliged to over compensate for us. Sensing the social disconnect they may even fear they’re responsible, but of course they shouldn’t. Brits may be sensing the conversation is going oddly too, but I think we’re often grateful that someone else is doing the hard work. Friendliness is the most appreciated American trait cited by Brits.

  3. A little tiny bit off topic but there was actually a funny incident a few days ago when I was shopping with an exchange student who just arrived a few weeks ago. When she went to ring up and the cashier asked her “How’s it going today?” the poor girl got really confused and began explaining everything we had done that day. The cashier just looked wide-eyed and a little shocked, but managed to shrug it off with “Well that sounds fun!”

    After we left the shop I explained to her that she didn’t actually have to tell the cashier how our day was going.

  4. Oh how funny Ginny – and not off topic at all! As Marc mentioned, that’s phatic communication, for ya’. Thank you so much for this story – loved it!

  5. The biggest difference is cheerfully intrusive small talk in the ladies’ room. Such a chatter the other day when a couple of us American teachers were using the restrooms at a conference here in Germany… It did make me think why we do it, is it to drown out the embarassing noises of using the loo, but I frankly don’t think one really needs to go that far. It just seems to create a cozy feeling of belonging. Sitting there in silence would be killing.

  6. Thanks Anne! I think it’s a lovely illustration of postive/negative politeness at work – AmE politeness placing more weight on inclusiveness, openess and sharing – BrE politeness placing more weight on not intruding and leaving the other person alone to go about their business.

  7. Lao although literally meaning ‘old’, is a signal of polite respect in Chinese; China has never been a youth culture, even today.

    The story is very different in American men’s rooms, where talking or otherwise acknowledging the presence of others (unless, marginally, you came in along with them and know them fairly well) is deeply taboo. Only desperation, such as a lack of toilet paper unnoticed until it’s too late, could provoke me to say anything to anyone in the bathroom.

    “True gender equality is providing three times as many stalls in the women’s room.” —I forget who

  8. […] wonderful! Click here read more on our greetings […]

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