LIN2160 Assessment Task 3.
Semester 1, 2009. 20711603.
Greetings are used to establish social encounters, and are necessary for being a
member of any language community. They are often the first conversational
routines learned by children and to be taught in foreign language classes. Studies of
cultural customs are useful, seeing that having the awareness, understanding, and
consideration of social variables is important for success in international business,
and dealing with people in multicultural settings. There are many ethnological,
linguistic, sociological, and ethnographic studies of greetings, yet there is still no
definition or systematic way of determining what qualifies as a greeting. Searle
1969 suggests that greetings are verbal formulas that do not refer to any
propositional or referential content (cited in Duranti 2009:188). Therefore, it has
been possible for many hypotheses of intentions to be identified for different
greetings in different languages and cultures. In all societies of diverse languages
and cultures, the universal underlying purpose of greetings is to establish, build,
and continue relationships; however, the intentions conveyed by greetings can
often be misunderstood in cross-cultural communication (Duranti 2009:188).
Greetings come in the forms of nonverbal behaviour (such as touching, bowing,
indirect or direct eye contact, waving, handshakes, kissing, hugging, nose rubbing);
and verbal formalisms. The way in which greetings are conducted and interpreted
is dependent on the cultural views on politeness and face; and factors such as the
notion of space and time; power, status and hierarchy; respect and honour; and
whether the society is group orientated or egalitarian focused. The influence of
culture on greeting customs will be discussed, along with the interpretation of some
greetings in accordance with diverse cultural views.
The cultural notions of power, status, and hierarchy influences the greeting
customs of different cultures, that may be egalitarian or group orientated. In
societies with a hierarchal social structure, such as in Asia and Polynesian cultures,
respect patterns are emphasized during interpersonal behaviour. Differences in
social status are acknowledged in linguistic communication (Thomas & Thomas
1994). In India and Saudi Arabia, handshakes are only conducted between men. In
South Korea, males and seniors are ranked socially higher. Therefore, subordinates
(children, women, non-authorities) are expected to bow and initiate the verbal
greeting. The Chinese greet seniors and elders first in respect (Martin & Chaney
2006:29). School children in Taiwan are expected to greet their teacher with “Lao
Shi hao” (“How are you, teacher?”) when the teacher enters the classroom.
However, it is unacceptable for the students to freely making a greeting if their
superiors are obviously occupied. The subordinates must recognize the superiors’
gestures and facial expressions as cues of openness to being greeted (Suzanne
1995:82). Both men and women in France would equally greet each other,
accompanied with an air kiss on both cheeks (Martin & Chaney 2006:32,34);
although French men typically initiate the handshake with women. On the contrary,
Mexican men will typically greet women with a handshake, only if it is initiated by
the woman. Otherwise, men generally greet female strangers with a slight bow
(Martin & Chaney 2006:32-33).
In many African societies, respect is most deserved by men, authority figures,
elders, the oldest members of society, and the wealthy. When greeting, respect to
an elder may be conveyed by kneeling or a slightly bowing. The appropriate form
of greeting also differs according to the social or professional hierarchy.
Handshakes and hugs tend to be inappropriate between men and women in some
contexts. Females and children are usually expected to kneel or bow when greeting
men, in-laws, guests, and authority figures (Otiso 2006:100). In Senegal, West
Africa, the greeting rituals of the Wolof people are elaborate in negotiating the
relation of the interlocutors, regarding to their social statuses. People of higher
status, i.e. ‘nobles’, tend to be passive, which implies more respect and power.
Therefore, people of lower status, i.e. ‘commoners, are generally the initiator of a
greeting encounter, verbally and non-verbally. The choice of initiating a greeting is
therefore a statement of one’s relative lower status. The African nation of Uganda
is an example of a communal society. Thus greetings in social or business
engagements usually begin with inquiries of each other’s health and that of their
families- which also refers to the extended family (Otiso 2006:100-102).
Foley 1997 observes that Australian and American cultures generally have a non-
hierarchal and egalitarian social structure. The underlying convention of greetings
in Australia and America is to create an impression of social equality between the
interlocutors. For example, in Australia, it is common for a customer to greet an
employee with the term mate or by first name, in affirmation of equality.
Nevertheless, social differences and statuses are still recognized. For example,
Australian or American children are generally expected to greet an unfamiliar adult
with a term indicating a higher social status, such as Mr, Mrs, sir, or madam (Foley
1997:256). In some Australian and New Zealand subcultures, friends and
acquaintances of equal status and power may greet each other with an insult. The
appropriate response to such a greeting would be to direct an insult to the speaker
in a humorous manner. A greeting response per se functions to maintain the face of
the interlocutors. This method of ‘leveling’, common among Australians and New
Zealanders, is a distinct feature of communication in egalitarian cultures (Thomas
& Thomas 1994).
In New Zealand, Polynesians and Pakeha (Anglo-New Zealanders) differ in social
structure. The Pakeha society is egalitarian, where ‘individualism’ is emphasized.
In contrast, Maori and other Polynesian groups have a communal social structure,
and ‘inclusiveness’ is emphasized. Therefore, the Polynesians and Pakeha adopt
different greeting styles in formal and informal social gatherings. Metge & Kinloch
1978 observed that Maori and Samoans often feel uncomfortable when attending
gatherings organized by Pakeha, as nobody would greet or speak to them. Pakeha
expect the initiative for introductions to be responsible by the individuals; or the
organizers of the event may introduce individuals to only one or two people with
the brief announcement of names. This egalitarian outlook assumes that no face
issues are involved (cited in Thomas & Thomas 1994). Polynesian groups, on the
other hand, interact with the underlying notion of ‘inclusiveness’ and ensuring
people are made to feel welcomed and integrated in the group (Graves & Graves
1985, cited in Thomas & Thomas 1994). In social gatherings, Polynesians are
consistent with greeting guests with appropriate introductions, as the newcomers
are permitted with ‘face’ by being acknowledged.
Different linguistic communities employ different linguistic methods to denote
politeness in interactions, as cultures vary in their conventions of face and
politeness. However, such differences may lead to misguided interpretations and
impressions in cross-cultural communication. For example, it may be considered
impolite in some cultures to inquire about where an interlocutor is going to;
whereas it may be the underlying format of a greeting in another culture. (Kachru
& Smith 2008:8). Metge and Kinloch 1978 recognized that Polynesian and Pakeha
groups have different gaze patterns during linguistic interactions. The Maori and
Samoans of New Zealand, demonstrate respect to persons of higher status (e.g.
employer, teacher, group leader) by avoiding gaze. It is considered impolite and
disrespectful to look directly at a superior during a greeting or conversation.
Therefore, Maoris and Samoans would direct their gaze somewhere else – either to
the side, the ceiling, to the floor, or into the distance. This behavior is often
misinterpreted by Pakehas as disrespect and dishonesty (cited in Thomas &
Differenct cultures have different protocols of formality. For example, people from
many other cultures are found to be surprised by Americans who say “Hi” to
complete strangers. This act is uncommon in most countries of the world, as
American culture is relatively informal. (Martin & Chaney 2006:24). In French, tu
(an informal inflected form of ‘you’) is used for greeting children, family, and
close friends; whereas the more respectful pronoun vous (a formal inflected form
of ‘you’) is used when greeting adult acquaintances and strangers (Magala
Sacks 1975 argued that people are not expected to stand for what they say during
greetings, i.e. greetings can be seen as “lying” (cited in Duranti 2009:188). In
Western cultures, it is conventional to greet with the inquiry of the other person’s
health (Kasher 1998:646). The greeting “Hi, how are you?” is a typical pleasantry
and ritual of American people. However, it can often be misleading to other
cultures as it does not actually mean to inquire about the state of the other person’s
health. It was observed by an Israli woman that ‘No matter if your children are on
drugs, your spouse is leaving you, and you have just declared bankruptcy, you are
expected to smile and say. ‘Everything is great!’ Why do Americans ask if they
don’t really want to know?” (Martin & Chaney 2006:24-25). In another case in the
United States, an Asian man was asked by a work colleague “What did you do over
the weekend?” The man interpreted the question literally, and listed every event
that took place from Friday evening through to Sunday. The answer was deemed
far too elaborate and informative for the American, as an expected answer to the
greeting would be an indication of well-being, rather than an informative citation
of events (Martin & Chaney 2006:24). In another example, Eskimos open
conversations by stating the obvious, such as (direct translation) “You are
obviously reading a book” (Webster and Webster 1968, cited in Kasher 1998:646).
According to Kasher 1998, the convention of this greeting is not the literal
meaning itself, as it carries the intention to open a conversation. In some societies,
such as in Chinese culture, it is conventional to greet by inquiring about the
person’s gastronomic welfare, such as the direct translated Chinese greeting “Have
you eaten?” Semantically, the greeting conveys concern for the person’s general
well-being, rather than the concern for whether the person has actually eaten or not
(Kasher 1998:646). The first greeting incident in China experienced by a British
teacher of English was documented by Hu and Grove 1991.The teacher was
extremely surprised when a male bank clerk greeted her with the inquisition of
whether she had had her lunch. In British culture, such a question would be
interpreted as an indirect invitation to lunch with the interest of dating the girl.
Hence the teacher was made to feel awkward as a result of her lack of knowledge
and familiarity of Chinese linguistic culture.
Greetings and introductions may be accompanied by different non-verbal gestures,
depending on culture. Martin & Chaney 2006 acknowledged that the proximity
implemented by interlocutors is dependent on the cultural ideologies of space and
social distance. The handshake is an acceptable greeting in many countries,
including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Finland. The exchange of handshakes also
sends different signals to people of different cultures. Carté and Fox 2008
conducted a study of the interpretation of different handshakes. Three people (two
males and one female) were to administer handshakes to a group of participants.
Each person was designated a power of grip with which to perform the handshakes
(i.e. strong grip, firm grip, and grip with no pressure). The participants consisted of
a German, a Swiss, a Frenchman, a Frenchwoman, and an Italian. They were to
report their interpretations and impressions of the different handshakes they
received. The strong and very firm handshake was preferred by the German and
Swiss, as their impression of the person was ‘very honest and straightforward’.
Conversely, the first impression received by the French and Italian was that the
person was aggressive, and pushy. The firm handshake with no excessive pressure
was appreciated by all the participants, except the Italian. The Italian had the sense
that the person was not very affectionate, as the bodily proximity was not kept
close enough during the handshake. The handshake administered with no pressure
was found to be unfavourable by all cultures. All participants had the impression
that the person administering the handshake was weak, insecure, and
untrustworthy. Furthermore, the German and British participants felt uneasy as
they considered their personal spaces to be invaded. Although the results from this
study are very personal reactions in consequence of a small sample size; they
provide a good indication of the culturally varied comfort level with physical
contact and closeness (Carté and Fox 2008:67-68). It was concluded that Italians
are relatively more comfortable with physical closeness. The Italian participant
explained that while greeting friends with a handshake, he would also squeeze their
arm with his other hand. Also it would be natural to additionally exchange kisses
between family and close friends, regardless of gender. In comparison, the British
and German participants were described as being more physically distant. Unlike
the Italians, the Germans and British would feel exceptionally uncomfortable with
the exchange of kisses by men. (Carté and Fox 2008:69).
In some cultures, it is customary to kiss or hug in place of or during a handshake.
Russians are more comfortable with body contact, and men would greet with a
bear-hug, followed by a firm handshake. Likewise, Middle Eastern men, such as in
Turkey, would greet with a hug while engaging in a handshake and a kiss on both
cheeks. In Latin America, the Mediterranean, and many African countries, people
would greet by embracing each other, often with a slap on the back. Furthermore,
close female friends would greet with a hug and kiss. Greeks may greet with a
handshake, an embrace, and/or a kiss with every encounter (Martin & Chaney
2006: 29). Not all cultures are at ease with physical contact and closeness. Asians,
Northern Europeans, most Canadians, and Americans are uncomfortable with body
contact with strangers. Scandinavians do not hug or kiss strangers. Many Asian
countries- such as Thailand, Japan, and China- traditionally greet with a bow
instead of a handshake. In India, it is customary to greet with Namaste, where the
palms are pressed together with the fingers placed below the chin, while making a
slight bow. (Martin & Chaney 2006:29-30).
Greetings can function as linguistic indications of the cultural ideologies of power,
such as the values of equality in the egalitarian culture of Australia, and
conventions of discrete hierarchy in communal focused cultures in West Africa.
The power and status ranking of gender, age, business roles, and social roles,
influence the etiquette of which individuals must adopt in the practice of greetings
and introductions. Some cultures are more at ease with physical contact than other
cultures; and for that reason, all cultures adopt the suitable greeting gestures that
conform to the society’s level of comfort. For example, the bow in the conservative
culture of Japan in comparison with the bear hug carried out between two Russian
males. According to these diverse conventions, cultures differ in the consideration
of what is appropriate behavior in greeting and introductions. Hence individuals of
different cultures must employ different methods of greetings and introductions in
order to convey politeness according to their cultures respectfully. Politeness may
be indicated by the use of honorifics, the appropriate salutations, and indirect or
direct language styles, and different forms of non-verbal gestures. Misguided
interpretation and impressions of impoliteness formed in cross-cultural
communication can be avoided with the understanding of different cultural
concepts of politeness and social order.
Carté, P. and Fox, C. (2008) Bridging the Culture Gap: A practical Guide to
International Business. London: Kogan Page Publishers, pp 67-69.
Foley, W. A. (1997) Anthropological Linguistics. Malden:Wiley-Blackwell, pp.
Hu, W. and Grove, C. (1991) Encountering the Chinese: A guide for Americans.
Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press Inc. pp. 25.
Kachru, Y. and Smith, L. E. (2008) Cultures, Contexts, and World Englishes.
London: Routledge, pp. 8.
Kasher, A. (1998) Pragmatics: Critical Concepts. London: Routledge, pp. 646.
Magala, S. (2005) Cultural Intelligence. NY: Routledge, pp. 201.
Martin, J. S. and Chaney, L. H. (2006) Global business etiquette: a guide to
international communication and customs. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, pp.
Otiso, K. M. (2006) Culture and customs of Uganda. USA: Greenwood Publishing
Group, pp. 100-102.
Suzanne, B. K. (1995) Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach.
Oxford, UK: Camberidge Mass. Blackwell Publishers, pp. 82.
Thomas, D. R. and Thomas, Y. L. N. (1994) “Same Language, different culture:
Understanding intercultural communication difficulties among English speakers”,
Proceedings of the International English Language Education Conference: National
and International Challenges and Responses. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.