My subject today is the question of whether it is reasonable to take offence over a greeting. You would think that the act of exchanging greetings should be simple seeing as they are an expression of goodwill. However, i have witnessed the controversy that can result because of the choice of greeting enough times now to know better. Particularly with Nigerians (i don’t know if other Africans are as bothered about this) the problem of using the appropriate greeting is a big one especially when there is a significant age difference between the people on the giving and receiving ends of the greeting. I have often seen people (younger ones more frequently) receive a dressing down for not greeting in a manner that the recipient of the greeting deemed satisfactory.
In a Nigerian setting, the words hi or hello have the capacity to cause extreme havoc. To say that many older Nigerians loathe these greetings is putting it mildly. They are considered offensive and insulting enough to warrant immediate intervention from other older persons within earshot. The possible reasons why these greetings in particular cause such a strong reaction is what i find very interesting about the topic because i think it says something about what the recipient expects from the greeting, which in turn leads me to wonder what function greetings perform.
An idea i have heard expressed is that hello is so offensive because it signifies a loss of culture in the person offering it up as a greeting. If i thought this meant that the recipient was motivated to rebuke the greeter only by a desire to preserve the integrity of Nigerian culture by upholding the proper modes of greeting, i would buy into this theory much more easily. However, i suspect that a bruised ego plays into things heavily as well. This is because amongst Nigerians, i have observed that greetings are a way of marking hierarchy between people. Therefore, someone failing to follow the proper form of greeting is not only viewed as introducing something foreign into the proceedings, but as daring to elevate themselves over the other person. As such, they must be immediately put back in their place. This is why who greets whom first also becomes an issue because of the power play involved in exchanging greetings.
Where this system breaks down is when people are interacting across cultures because in that case, the expectations and assumptions behind a greeting are not the same on both sides. This creates the potential for unintended offence. This is where i think many older Nigerians are going wrong when they react so harshly to an innocently offered greeting. Of course, there is always the possibility that the person saying hello might intend it as an insult but i think what happens more commonly is that there is a clash of cultures which the participants are not even aware of. The key mistake on the part of the older person in this scenario is assuming that because they share a similar heritage with the person greeting them, they must be operating by the same cultural rules and so any deviation from those rules must be intended maliciously. However, this is not necessarily true.
If we considered it for moment, we could admit that a young person of Nigerian heritage born and raised in a Western country, who mostly interacts with other people like him and a Nigerian adult born and raised in Nigeria, who mostly interacts with others like her (even though she now lives in the same Western country) are not using the same social code. Executing greetings properly the Nigerian way can be even more challenging when the person greeting is used to interacting in an environment in which addressing people by their names and making eye contact are perfectly polite things to do.This leads me to the question of who gets to set the bar of what is acceptable in a greeting? The one making it or the one who is being greeted?
The way i see it, greeting someone else is not a duty or an obligation. It doesn’t even have to be a routine though it often is. So when someone does greet you, it shows that in some way they have acknowledged your presence and something about you. In my ideal world instead of causing offence, greetings would be received in the spirit in which they were intended even if they do not perfectly fit the expected form. Instead of playing politics with greetings, we would take them as an opportunity to connect with another person. After all, who says that a good morning ma is meant more sincerely than a hello or that a hug is meant less genuinely than a kneel?
NB: Another greeting that causes problems is Happy Holidays in place of Merry Christmas. I would have looked at this as well but this piece is long enough already. Perhaps some other time.