How Is Your Tiredness? Teaching Greetings in English and Other Languages

What I’ve learned about teaching English as a second language is this: the very things that seem to us native speakers to be basic and oh so simple often turn out to be Oh. So. Hard.

Take greetings, for example.

Greetings are the essential lubricant of daily social interaction, and as such they are a staple of every beginning language course. When I was in the Peace Corps in Niger many years ago, we studied Hausa, a West African language. I’ve forgotten almost all of it, but to this day I can recite the ritual greetings without hesitation:

Ina kwana?      How did you sleep?
Lahiya lau
         In good health

One then continues by choosing from a dozen or more options, such as:

Ina gida?          How is your family?
Ina aiki?            How is your work?
Ina gajiya?       How is your tiredness?

John Baird, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger in the early 1970s, returned 31 years later and was reunited with an old friend. Ritual greetings, accompanied by hand clasps, are a staple of daily life in Niger. Photo courtesy of Friends of Niger.

The response to all of these is Lahiya lau, although you can vary it with phrases such as Aiki da godiya (I am grateful for work) or Babu gajiya (there is no tiredness). Upon hearing this, the other person may murmur To madalla (that’s fine). After the litany of greetings, you can then begin an actual conversation, or you can end the encounter and be on your way, saying To, sai anjima (okay, see you later).

It’s been more than thirty years, but I will never forget these Hausa greetings (as well as others beginning with sannu and barka). In another thirty or forty years, when I’m on my deathbed, if someone asks me Ina kwana? I will surely respond Lahiya lau.

So when we decided to teach our 1-B class some basic greetings in English, I assumed it would be a matter of teaching a few phrases that they could memorize and deploy in any greeting situation. Wrong.

When you greet people in English (and in Spanish and many other languages), you choose from a menu of greetings, each of which is appropriate in certain situations and not in others. For example, these three phrases all mean exactly the same thing:

How do you do?
How are you?
How are you doing?

But they are used in very different circumstances. How do you do? is at the top of the formality/politeness scale. It’s what you say when your friend introduces you to his grandmother. I don’t know or care much about English royalty, but if I were to meet the queen, my natural instinct would be to say How do you do? Compare that to the more pedestrian, all-purpose workhorse of a phrase, How are you? You can use that with just about anyone and it won’t be incorrect. But add “doing” to the end of it, How are you doing? — often pronounced How ya doin’? — and suddenly it’s very informal, something you’d say when you see your friend at school or the neighbor outside walking the dog.

First lady Michelle Obama meets Queen Elizabeth. When introduced to the queen, you probably want to say "How do you do?" and not "How ya doin’?," unless, of course, you’re the queen’s old chum.

So formality/politeness is one factor in choosing a greeting. That in turn depends on whether you already know the person you’re greeting and on whether you’re at the same social level as that person. We are more formal with people who outrank us (the boss, the school principal, the queen) or who merit respect for some other reason, such as age (the friend’s grandmother).

A second factor is whether you’re meeting the person for the first time. The first time your friend introduces his grandmother, you might say Nice to meet you, but the second time you see the old lady, you wouldn’t say that; instead you could say Nice to see you again. Likewise, How do you do? is mainly used on a first meeting.

I’d like to say we explained all this clearly to our students, but in fact I muddled it all up. But we managed to get across the differing levels of formality via role plays (I put a dainty scarf about my shoulders to play Grandma, in one of my lesser dramatic efforts). We ended up with several lists of greetings:

Informal: Hi. Hey. How’s it going? What’s up? How are you doing? What’s new? What’s happening? These and similar greetings are used between people who know each other and between social equals such as friends or co-workers. Responses can be anything you like, such as: Pretty good. Not much. Same old, same old.

Medium formality: Hello. How are you? Response: Fine, thank you or Fine, thanks. These are the most basic greetings, and almost always appropriate.

Very formal/polite: How do you do? Response: Fine, thank you. And you?

Hey, how's it going? There are many different ways to greet someone informally. But "How are you?" is always correct, too. City Year Chicago Meet & Greet 2011, photo by Anthony Martinez.

We stressed that in the more formal situations, when you are asked How are you? or How do you do? you must always say Fine, thank you or Fine, thanks, even if you are ill, clinically depressed, embroiled in marital troubles, hobbling around on a broken leg or whatever. The person who asked how you are doesn’t really want to know, just as my interlocutors in Niger, a country ravaged by famine and malaria, where the life expectancy is 53, were always, always, lahiya lau.

In a future post I’ll look at a related topic, forms of personal address in English (Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Ma’am, Sir, etc.) — a question that is just as essential, and perhaps even more confusing, than greetings.

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