I wrote about our experiences hosting an exchange student awhile back as you all may or may not recall. (yes I know I still need to complete the next two parts of that series) One of the things I learned from the experience is how differently people socialize from culture to culture. How customs differ – surprisingly – even when we don’t think the culture is all that different from our own.
A good example of this is the difference between American and German greetings. Here, we always say Hi (or Hello) and add: “How are you”? Our Laura came to me perplexed and somewhat annoyed one evening and inquired “Why does everyone ask me how I am?” In Germany, people merely say Hello or Good Morning etc and smile. It is considered at best mildly intrusive and somewhat rude to inquire further. She went on to tell me that in Germany people can tell by looking at you how you are, so it’s not necessary to ask. Specifics about what’s going on in German lives is information saved for those who need to know – and shared in later, separate conversations. I explained to Laura that in America asking how someone is is just considered the polite way to greet someone. It’s generally for form’s sake only. I really don’t want the other person to overshare – but I don’t mind hearing that they just got back from a great vacation; or that cousin Susie just had her first baby. Generally the polite response to the inquiry is “Fine, and you”? In Germany, all you have to do is say hello back. Simple, and direct.
I have been caught out a few times when someone just says hello to me and I respond “Fine and you'”? Duh-Oh! Has anyone else done ever done that? I always feel so dumb…. The “how are you?” part is so ingrained in me that I assume its been said; even when it wasn’t. Frankly, I always think it’s slightly unfeeling of the other person when I don’t hear them ask. Unless I visit Germany because I know its normal there NOT to ask.
Of course, here in America we have our regional differences as to what is acceptable initial interaction with others. My neck of the woods is – erroneously in my opinion – considered one of the most unfriendly regions in the US. True, we keep to ourselves much of the time – but we’re there when you need us. New Englanders often make the assumption that others will reach out if they want to socialize or if they need us. Otherwise, we figure you want your privacy and we’ll leave you to it. I’m not like that, I’ll tell you long, involved stories about my kids the first time we meet. (Ok, maybe the second time…)
The folks in the Midwest take “friendly” to a whole new level. I remember a visit to Chicago shortly after my youngest was born. My Aunt and I were having lunch at Shaw’s Crab House downtown and I had to use the “necessary”. (such a quaint term, innit?) As I was washing up, I happened to look up in the mirror and caught the eye of another restaurant patron. Now, in New England when that happens you nod, and smile slightly, no teeth showing – that’s all. Here however, I got a full on prattle. I confess I became completely thunderstruck and unable to contribute anything other than a dazed “Mmm hmmm” where appropriate. “Oh Hey Howareya? Beautiful day! Gonna be a scorcher later, yeah? I just finished replanting my flower borders yesterday. My daughter came home early from school or I would’ve had it done last week….. “ and so forth. All this, because I made eye contact, smiled, and nodded. I wandered back to my table; and my Aunt -taking in my glazed eyes and totally gobsmacked expression -asked me what happened. She laughed when I told her and said “Yep, that’s Midwest Friendly for you! Dontcha love it”? Pssst: here’s a confession – now that I’ve spent more time out there, I really do!!
Down South, they must feed you once they have welcomed you to their home. You must eat what they serve you and you will be encouraged to have seconds, even thirds. Your hosts aren’t completely happy until you’ve eaten yourself into a food coma. (I exaggerate only slightly for narrative purposes) Once you have been invited into a southerner’s home and heart you are family, period. Forever and ever, Amen. Since I’m still in the confessional, I’ll tell you I love that, too.
But watch out. Southern women have passive aggressive down to a science. They get away with some outrageous statements and observations just by adding this one simple phrase: “Bless (her/his/their) heart(s)!” “Miss Clairee, bless her heart, can’t say anything nice about anybody- so she comes and sits by me.” Or, “Poor Bobby Lee, his love of his home-brew got him pulled over for drunk driving, bless his heart. And his kids, bless their hearts, are gonna have to go live with their Aunt Lucy while he serves his jail time” I think
this may be the southern way of acknowledging others’ difficulties and sort of asking for divine intervention. Or I could be wrong, and it’s just a nicer way to gossip…
I’ve always been interested in learning about the customs and culture of other countries. Now that I have viewers and followers all over the world I would love to know – How do you say Hello? Can’t wait to hear from you!