Everyone in the Room: On Cultural Differences in Greetings

Yesterday, one of my friends asked me, “Why don’t you greet all of your students?”

I was surprised and confused for a moment. Of course I greet all of my students, I thought indignantly. I say “salam” or “hello” to all of them (I try to do it in English for my English classes, but shockingly, it’s harder to remember to use English greetings now), and I even ask them how they are doing.

Then she made a kissy-face to demonstrate what she meant—and I face-palmed.

Five months here, and I still can’t get it right! She meant why I don’t greet each one the Arab World way—handshakes for the other gender and kisses on the cheek for those of my gender.

This is something I know. This is something I have practiced. And yet…

This friend and I had already had Part 1 of this conversation last week. Robert and I taught her the “American way” to greet friends: hugs! Followed by an explanation that made me realize how freakin’ complicated American greetings can be.

“We don’t really ever kiss our friends on the cheek or shake their hands. We only shake hands if we are meeting someone for the first time or we are in a professional setting. When we see our friends, we can hug them. Or we can just say hello without touching. Depends on the setting and the friend and the circumstance. If you haven’t seen each other in a while, you’d probably hug them. But if you see each other every day or every week, maybe not. Unless they are the type of friend who just loves hugs.”

So yesterday, she wondered, “You said before that the American way to greet someone is hugging them. Why don’t you hug the kids here?”

“Uhhhh well, in America, we don’t greet students physically,” I told her. “They are part of your professional life, not your personal life. They aren’t your friends. (I guess it’s different here because many of my students ARE my friends. That’s because they’re often my age or older than me…) In America, sometimes, if they do a really great job on something or they need comforting, we give them a hug. Usually a side hug. Front hugs, like with friends, are not encouraged. But we definitely don’t greet them with handshakes or kisses. We just say hello, maybe wave, maybe sometimes a high-five but only if you know them well?”

I just succeeded in confusing her further.

In Morocco, as well as many other non-American countries, you must greet every single person in the room or it is considered rude. In America, if you enter a room, you are only expected to greet the people you know. No one expects you to greet the strangers. You’d only greet strangers if you were introduced to them specifically. But enter a Moroccan room, and you must greet everyone properly and equally—whether they are your best friends or people you’ve never seen before.

This is something I’m still struggling with, though I am getting better slowly.

Shwiya by shwiya, as always…

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

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