A better way to say hello

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Nov. 9, 2010

It’s high time to do away with the mechanical greeting we North Americans employ. You know, the garden variety Hihowareyou/Good exchange that doesn’t really expect a serious answer.

In fact, when it comes to saluting our fellows, we could probably all learn something from the Dogon people in the West African country of Mali, where I recently spent a couple of months.

The tenacious Dogon live in villages on sandy plateaus clinging to rocky cliffs, an area of such unique cultural, geological and historic significance that it has been made a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Dogon language family consists of more than 20 languages and, where I stayed, the villagers spoke Tommo So.

Unlike us, they have elaborate greetings. One might go something like this:

First man: Let’s go into the morning.

Second man: Indeed. Did you pass the night?

First man: I did.

Second man: Did your menfolk pass the night?

First man: They did. Are you in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Are your menfolk in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Is your wife in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Are you not ill?

Second man: There is no evil.

First man: Is the white woman staying with you in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: I see.

Then it starts all over again with the other person asking the questions.

Chorus of hellos

And that is just one exchange. Imagine greeting people each day as if you hadn’t seen them for months or years.

The Dogon repeat this ritual with every adult they encounter who is even remotely within earshot. They shout across waving fields of millet, from one motorbike to another, mid-way down a rocky path, with engines revved, while carrying awkward loads of craggy sticks to fuel the fire.

Dogon

If a group is addressed, they even respond in chorus, which can make a visitor’s heart just sing with joy.

Like us, the salutations are modified according to the time of day — morning, after work or night.

What’s more, the greetings are such an important ritual that if you master them, they say that you are Dogon, because you can speak the language.

There are opportunities, of course, to talk about deeper issues, but only after the greetings are exchanged.

To greet, indeed, is to be human.

Relationships

The greetings reflect West African society, where relationships are paramount, says Dogon expert Dr. Walter van Beek at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

They are an acknowledgement of a relationship — you’re a neighbour, a kinsman, a peer — a recognition that you’re part of a larger group and that you depend on each other.

This could explain why Malians always asked me (in French): Ça va bien? La famille, ça va? Et le Canada, ça va?

I wasn’t used to being asked how my country was doing. Ça va bien, ça va bien, I’d reply, secretly wondering if something horrible had happened back home while I was away.

Here in North America, our greetings essentially play the same role: to acknowledge one another and exchange information.

They are just more individualized. I am asking how you are doing, not your family and friends and hometown.

In our society, for the most part, the individual is paramount.

But if you factor in small talk, our salutations aren’t so different from these long African rituals, suggests Jerry Barkow, a social anthropologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Years ago, he worked among Hausa speakers in northern Nigeria and southern Niger and he sees similarities with our greetings here.

“In Nova Scotia, where I live, we talk about the weather,” he says.

“You can wonder why we bother because little or no new information is exchanged. But in fact, we are doing precisely what Hausa do with an extended greeting. We are maintaining and at times re-establishing or repairing a relationship.”

For sure, we do go on and on about the weather.

You know those exchanges: This weekend is supposed to be cold. Really? I thought it was supposed to be warm. Oh no, I saw snowflakes this morning. Well even so, they’ll melt by noon. Oh, I don’t know, they say this winter is going to be cold.

And then you both start to shiver, nod politely and move on.

A nod

I have to say, though, that I really liked the Dogon style of greeting. Within the first few weeks of my stay, I had memorized their elaborate ritual and could perform it flawlessly after a while.

Of course, as soon as they threw in an unfamiliar question, I became flustered and they laughed, good-naturedly of course. It felt so nice to spend time exchanging these words with the people who crossed my path. Never mind that it took twice as long to get anywhere.

The Dogon way seemed so much better than the quick Hihowareyou I was used to in Toronto. It was as if they cared more about each other’s well-being.

Since my return, I’ve been mindful of how I greet people. Sometimes there really is only time for a Hihowareyou/Good exchange.

But there are many occasions, I’ve discovered, when I can ask a thoughtful question that requires more than just a one-word answer. Questions like: What do you think of our new mayor? or How do you look so perky when you get up at 3 a.m.? or That’s the biggest backpack I’ve ever seen, what do you carry in it? (granted, this could get awkward).

It is gratifying to see the conversation, laughter and insight that a sincere query can elicit.

But I’ve also learned that even a quick nod or rushed greeting has value. It means we’re at least acknowledging each other’s presence.

In an age where hand-held devices have practically become a physical extension of our bodies, the mere fact that some of us are still looking up to SEE the people around us is a very healthy sign.

To greet, after all, is to be human.

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