Greetings and goodbyes are such a strange concept. We come up with these silly phrases to signal the beginning and the end of a conversation, and often they fail to capture what is really meant in the greeting or goodbye – the essence of it. You wouldn’t think much about them, considering how mundane they are, but greetings and goodbyes speak volumes about the culture in which they’re spoken.
Take Swahili, for example. During my month-long study abroad in Tanzania, I had the opportunity to speak Swahili with native speakers after having learned the language for a mere two years. Greetings seemed – initially – like they would be the easiest to say and understand, considering they are rather basic and among the first phrases I learned. But when walking through the market and arriving at home or school, the greetings I heard threw my brain in a tizzy, and “Hellos” I gave were sometimes met with laughter. Why was this?
It seemed, that the “Hellos” and “How are yous” I had concocted were merely the closest translations of my standard American-English greetings. For example I would say, Habari za asubuhi, which literally means news of the morning, or “How are you this morning?,” or Hujambo, which means “Are you not well?” but more colloquially, “Hello.” Although these greetings were perfectly acceptable, they were sometimes silly to the Tanzanians I was greeting because they could sense the “American-ness” of such greetings (not to mention the lack of practiced slang of the area).
I was using only the best Swahili counterparts to my American-English phrases. But when I took the time to learn the greetings and goodbyes of Tanzanian-Swahili, not only was I able to communicate better, but I also got a glimpse into the lives of east Africans.
The greeting Umeamkaje? summarizes this idea perfectly: this simple word literally means, “How have you woken up?” but could be roughly translated to “Did you sleep well?” With this information in mind, I began to see how genuinely Tanzanians care about the well being of one another. I would be greeted this way often in the streets on my walk to the bus stop each morning. In the streets! By strangers! I imagined myself being asked the same question on the street by a stranger in Ann Arbor and I scoffed at the idea – nobody would dare greet a stranger in such a way (or even greet a stranger at all for that matter).
When asked Umeamkaje? so frequently, I soon realized that greetings and goodbyes are more than just easy phrases to initiate or conclude a conversation. They are, rather, a small snapshot of how people in that culture relate to one another.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her book “North to the Orient” touches on the same idea, elaborating on the weaknesses of some goodbyes, rather beautifully:
For Sayonara, literally translated, “Since it must be so,” of all the good-bys I have heard is the most beautiful. Unlike the Auf Wiedersehens and Au revoirs, it does not try to cheat itself by any bravado “Till we meet again,” any sedative to postpone the pain of separation. It does not evade the issue like the sturdy blinking Farewell. Farewell is a father’s good-by. It is – “Go out into the world and do well, my son.” It is encouragement and admonition. It is hope and faith. But it passes over the significance of the moment; of parting it says nothing. It hides its emotion. It says too little. While Good-by (“God be with you”) and Adios say too much. They try to bridge the distance, almost to deny it. Good-by is a prayer, a ringing cry. “You must not go alone, unwatched. God will be with you. God’s hand will be over you” and even – underneath, hidden by it is there, incorrigible – “I will be with you; I will watch you – always.” It is a mother’s good-by. But Sayonara says neither too much nor too little. It is a simple acceptance of fact. All understanding of life lies in its limits. All emotion, smoldering, is banked up behind it. But it says nothing. It is really the unspoken good-by, the pressure of a hand, “Sayonara.”
Hello, hi, goodbye…they all just seem so plain to me now, knowing what I do about the richness of other phrases. And while asking my roommate Umeamkaje? in the morning might be a good-hearted idea, and saying Sayonara each time I must part from someone is certainly romantic, it seems doubtful that these words will ever amount to more than just a cutesy-foreign phrase when borrowed in our daily English jargon.
I do, however, think that it’s time for our English counterparts to mean more… for us to mean more when we say “Hello” and “Goodbye” because our conversations these days seem to be lacking in sincerity.
So when someone concocts the English equivalent of Sayonara, let me know. But until then, Farewell.
— Britt Boyle