I often wonder how language shapes our connection with others. Does how we greet another affect how we interact with them? I remember when I was a teenager grappling with chronic health issues, I would cringe at the formal greeting of others, “Hello, how are you?” I never knew what to say. My life centered around pain and ill health at the time and it was all-consuming. To answer honestly usually brought an unsavory response in the asker. In general, people don’t really care to know how you are. The reality I learned is that our common English greeting is a formality with little actual meaning. It’s just a gateway question on the road to any other topic for conversation. I knew I’d matured into societal “normality” once I learned to smile and reply, “I’m well. And you?”
Occasionally I trip across greetings from other parts of the world. This excerpt about how people greet one another in particular South African tribes is from The Fifth Discipline by Peter Serge, as quoted in Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott :
“Among the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to “hello” in English, is the expression: “Sawu bona.” It literally means, “I see you.” If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying, “Sikhona” or “I am here.” The order of the exchange is important: Until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence.”
I wonder how this very basic exchange and the intention behind it sets the tone for the interaction of these tribes people. It feels different to me than the greeting I’m used to here in North America; somehow it is more soothing, more honoring. I wonder if people feel soothed and honored as both the giver and receiver of this greeting or if it becomes a formality like “Hello, how are you?” has become here for me.
And then there is Namaste, a greeting that has become popularized by the yoga crowd. Commonly held to mean “I honor the Divine in you” in Sanskrit, Namaste has become a popular way to address those in the “spiritual” circles. While I love the greeting and it’s meaning, it feels contrived. Every time I use it, I feel as though I’m putting on something that is not authentic. It’s as if I’m trying to show the world just how “enlightened” I am.
Perhaps it is not the words we use when greeting one another that matter. Perhaps it is the presence of the person greeting you that makes the difference. There are people I’ve met along my life’s path that have said volumes to me with eye contact and a smile, without ever opening their mouth. It is as if they utter a silent Sawu bona. They see me. I see them. What more is there to say?