Sunday, August 11, 2013

The art of the greeting

One of my favorite things about travelling and living in foreign countries is seeing how other cultures are different from my own.  Some of these cultural intricacies are easily observed through dress, language or cuisine.  I don’t think this can be any more evident as in Dubai where waiting in line to ride to the 124th (out of 163) floor of the Burj Khalifa you see husbands with multiple wives in full burka attire standing next to western expats in halter tops and miniskirts.  Other customs are present, but may be less easily detected or understood; the greeting being one of the most challenging to comprehend.

Anyone who has spent time in a yoga studio may be familiar with the saying, “Namaste.” In India, “Namaste” is said while pressing the palms of the hands together with the fingers pointing up, simultaneously bowing the head slightly.  This form of salutation is common throughout the Indian subcontinent as non-contact is preferred for hygienic reasons and due to the conservative relationship between the genders. Quite the opposite, throughout various parts of continental Europe, as well as Latin America, cheek kissing is prevalent, even between members of the same sex.  And then there is always Japan, where handshakes are common with westerners, but a bow made at an angle of at least 30 degrees is expected among locals and in interactions between individuals of unequal social status.

Botswana is not unique in having their own customs related to greetings.  In the U.S., passing someone on the street or in the corridor without making eye contact, smiling or saying hello, is more the norm than the exception.  Here, failing to acknowledge someone, even a stranger, is considered a slight, and likely to result in unwanted negative attention.  I’ve learned never to leave my house too close to the start of class as doing so would likely cause me to arrive late after stopping every 30 seconds to wish each passersby “Dumela. O tsogile jang?”

Handshakes here are also have a style all their own. Throughout most of southern Africa a handshake is a three part process.  As in other western societies, the two individuals grasp one another’s right hand, and shake once, up and down.  After the initial shake, the pair link thumbs and grip the wrist of the other person with their fingers. Again, in the linked-thumbs position, there is one shake up and down.  The third and final shake is completed using the same method as the first “normal” shake.  Throughout the handshaking process the left hand rests on the forearm or elbow as a sign of respect.  Failing to engage both arms during the handshake is considered poor form because if the recipient cannot see both hands of the opposing individual, there is no telling what inappropriate actions the missing hand may be partaking in.
While I believe I’ve successfully adopted the proper greeting protocol of my new home, I’m sure there will be plenty of other cultural lessons throughout the next 12 months.  I look forward to embracing those opportunities with open arms, i.e. the hug, my favor way of saying hello.

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