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The U.S. in Words #5: Like Apples and Oranges (Learning to Greet Americans)

The fifth in a series looking at U.S. life and culture through its idioms. View previous entries.

Like apples and oranges = completely different from each other, not comparable

How to say hello? Maybe with a sign!
How to say hello? Maybe with a sign!

One thing I was confident about before I arrived in the U.S. was that I knew how to greet people there.I come from a Latin American country where we keep a very close physical distance, we touch and hug continuously, and kiss hello, even with a person we've just met. I was prepared to curb that practice in the U.S. and was sure I'd greet Americans with a wave and a light-hearted, “Hi.”

But oh, did I find unexpected scenarios!

Since I arrived, I've been able to pick up on a lot of the common greeting patterns, like shaking hands with people I’m being introduced to and answering "I'm good" instead of the long-practiced "fine, thanks."

But it turns out there are lots of greeting patterns, and deciding which one to use can be curious and confusing. Some people you've met a couple of times, or even your friends, will go for the smile and "Hi," but others will give you the typical "American hug" and some even kiss!

The “American hug” is a unique thing unto itself. In Uruguay we greet each other with a kiss, but when we hug we do it to show affection. It's a very personal gesture that demonstrates some kind of intimacy . We hug with our whole body, and very tight! But I find hugs here to be very funny; people approach each other with their trunks, keeping a safe distance in their lower body, and turn their faces away as they pat each other's shoulder.

When I have to greet someone, more often than not I find myself standing in front of them wondering what greeting I’m supposed to choose. What usually works is waiting for them to initiate, and then responding accordingly, even though that pause is sometimes embarrassing.

But I’m getting used to it. Last week at a conference with my fellow Fulbright scholars from around the world in D.C., I unconsciously went for the American hug instead of the more natural (for me) kiss.

The goodbyes are different too. They tend to come much sooner in a conversation than what I am used to from Uruguay – people in the United States are so efficient that they even apply that value to their relationships.

Shocking phone behaviors!
Shocking phone behaviors!

I felt this when talking on the phone with my advisor. She always cuts right to the chase and finishes the conversation as soon as we’re done discussing the issue at hand. At first I really didn't understand that it was not that she didn't want to talk to me, but that this is just how they handle conversations.

In Uruguay, when we talk on the phone, and even in person, we tend to linger over goodbyes as we interject new comments in between each farewell.

Another important value for Uruguayans is that after dinner, we stay together talking for a long time. We drink coffee and talk and we can go on and on for many hours. Here, most people hang out while they eat, but not after that. One afternoon I went to a cafe with a Spanish and an Argentinean friend, and with our coffee and bread, we stayed there for four hours, just chatting, having a good time. During that time we saw a lot of people come in and go back out, while we still had plenty to talk about.

In Spanish, there's even a word to describe the time we spend after a meal: sobremesa. There is no such word in English!

I don’t always know how to say hello, or when to say goodbye, but I think making all of these adaptations has been worth it. They have made me more aware of a different culture and of different ways of behaving, and being. I honestly think that I have grown a lot by going through this experience, and I still have a lot to learn.