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Don’t Say Goodbye
to Saying Hello

by Joyce McGreevy on February 5, 2018

A man and a woman conversing in Ireland shows how saying hello is fundamental across cultures. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Saying hello is saying yes to life.
© Joyce McGreevy

Meeting & Greeting Across Cultures

In a New Yorker cartoon entitled “How to Clear a Space at a Crowded Beach,” a man says hello to all and sundry. His cheeriness so horrifies New Yorkers that hundreds collectively retreat.

Oh, I see: Some people like saying hello. Some people give hello the heave-ho.

In Galway, Ireland, (pop. 258,000) passersby often say hello to one another. Nothing fancy, mind you. A quick tap of the second syllable and you’re on your way. In Istanbul, Turkey (pop. 15 million) a local who said hello to passersby would prompt a puzzled reaction.

Yet people in both cities are notably friendly.

Does higher population density = fewer hellos? In New York City, saying hello to your neighbors in just one square mile would take you 2 weeks, 4 days, and 16 hours.

How Do You Hello?

Every culture has numerous ways to say hello, from Hi to Sula manchwanta galunga omugobe. Some greetings translate as questions: “Where are you going?” (Philippines) “Have you eaten?” (China) “Have you slept well?” (central Africa)

A word cloud in many languages shows that saying hello is fundamental across cultures. (Image © annatodica/iStock)

There’s a world of ways to say hello!
© annatodica/iStock

Business greetings vary across cultures, too. Leaving an office in Europe for one in Southern California, I often encountered hugs instead of handshakes. Yet saying hello to my SoCal neighbors elicited wary looks, as if I might be a time-share vendor eager to make a sale.

In Japanese business settings, hugs are unheard of, handshakes uncommon, and elaborate etiquette governs bowing and the exchange of business cards. But it was Japanese psychology that taught me a simple path to resilience during challenging times: maintain the practice of saying hello.

A Belgian cheesemonger saying hello shows that greeting is fundamental across cultures. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

There’s nothing cheesy about saying hello!
© Joyce McGreevy

In France, entering a shop without saying Bonjour, Madame (or Monsieur) is considered rude. Ditto Merci, au revoir as you leave. France is also where I’ve seen people say hello on entering elevators or when passing in corridors. It’s no come-on, just good manners.

Hello Kissy

Some cultures kiss hello. Career diplomat Andy Scott has navigated greetings in 60 countries, where the proper number of kisses can vary from one (Colombia) to eight (Afghanistan). In One Kiss or Two? The Art and Science of Saying Hello (The Overlook Press, available March 2018) Scott guides readers through greeting etiquette across cultures in all its air-kissing, high-fiving, nose-rubbing, cheek-sniffing, foot-kissing, floor-spitting, tongue-sticking, hand-clapping variety.

Hello, Fellow Human

Hello goes beyond words and gestures. Think of all the times you make eye contact with strangers—approaching the paper-towel dispenser in a restroom, finding a seat at the doctor’s office. Maybe you’ve shared an empathetic grimace with others in line at the DMV, or traded sheepish grins with a fellow shopper as you negotiated a narrow grocery aisle with oversized shopping carts.

What difference can such fleeting contact make?  A lot. In 2011, researchers at Purdue University noted that humans have “evolved systems to detect the slightest cues of inclusion or exclusion. For example, simple eye contact is sufficient to convey inclusion. In contrast, withholding eye contact can signal exclusion” making people feel invisible.

They named their study after a German expression, wie Luft behandeln—“To Be Looked at as Though Air”—and added a telling subtitle: “Civil Attention Matters.”

A waving hand on a winter day shows that saying hello is universal across cultures. (Image © Banepx/iStock)

A warm greeting can make the world of difference.
© Banepx/iStock

Hello, Anyone Here?

Eye contact is in shorter supply these days, as staring at smartphones becomes the default pause filler. And not just among the young.

Many of us clamp on headphones the moment we board trains, planes, and buses. But a 2014 study of Chicago commuters by the University of California Berkeley found that those who engaged another passenger in conversation were much happier.

I’m an irrepressible hello-er. Otherwise, I would have missed a wonderful dinner conversation last night with my friends Ann and Caitlin. After all, a few hours earlier, we hadn’t yet met.

To Greet or Not to Greet

Saying hello connects us, yet saying hello is a risk. We love getting out of the house for the social atmosphere of a café. Then we crouch behind our laptops.

Saying hello breaks down barriers. When a toddler says “Hi” in a public space it sparks friendly exchanges among nearby adults.

A baby waving shows that saying hello is fundamental across cultures. (Image © M-image/iStock)

Even as babies, we instantly process the emotional significance of a wave.
© M-image/iStock

The Power of Saying Hello

Once upon a time, at a college orientation, a young man saw a beautiful fellow student. At a loss for a clever opening line, he opted for “Hello.”

They’re happily married now.

So, don’t say goodbye to saying hello. Greetings vary across cultures, but in every language of the world, saying hello welcomes a world of possibility. Sometimes the sweetest possibility of all.

A couple walking hand in hand in Budapest show the power of saying hello across cultures. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

To say hello is to greet life with open arms.
© Joyce McGreevy

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8 thoughts on “Don’t Say Goodbye
to Saying Hello

  1. Howya Loveen. This the true Galway greeting. I am just back after living for many years in New Zealand. The Kiwi’s are lovely friendly people but this greeting as I walk through Galway just lights my heart. Long may it continue.

    • Long may it continue indeed! Go raibh maith agat, Elizabeth, for this lovely comment. The many years that I lived and worked in Galway were some of the happiest of my life and your thoughtful comment brought it all back beautifully. I’m also delighted by your tribute to New Zealand as I’ll soon be heading there for a few months. Best wishes and thanks for reading!

  2. Joyce,
    What a delightful article and such a wonderful surprise that you mention Caitlin and I in your writings! We so much enjoyed our time with you. The typo reminds me that I prefer Anne to Ann, but alas the dubbing of my name (and spelling) is attributed to my mother’s best friend in college. Maybe when I grow up, I’ll add an e. Until then, I will see your typo and remember with fondest memories the start of what I hope will be a longtime friendship.

  3. I love this, Joyce! Reminds me of, when living in Ireland and out walking, how you wouldn’t pass anyone by on the road without a wave and a hello. Love the ending anecdote and photo!

  4. Hello Joyce,
    Yet another delightful blogpost! I couldn’t help but think of my stays in Paris when upon descending from my room to the breakfast room, I observed the French greeting the other people in the breakfast room as they entered the room. Just good manners, nothing unusual. Acknowledging the other people’s presence.
    Your post also reminded me of my hikes in Austria, where everyone would greet you with “Gruß Gott”, southern German for Guten Tag. Thanks again.

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