It is common sense to think that greetings are important in most cultures. I thought I knew that, but I never felt this impolite in my (short) life until I got here in Senegal. I never realized that I actually don’t greet people enough. For example, last week my mother reminded me to say hello to two different people and three times in one day in the house. Plus, I cannot say that I was not informed about the importance of greetings in Senegal.
During orientation we were told that it is really important to say hello to people. Before you ask any favor, our program staff said, greet them. We were also advised to greet people when we wake up and ask about their night. It does sound like basic manners that everyone should have, but habits are different everywhere.
We were also taught that people will ignore us if we don’t greet them and I have a first-hand experience with this. When I am thinking about it, certain people in Madagascar can do the same. One night I was lost and I said to a woman “excusez-moi” and then asked which way I should go. The woman replied “Je ne parle pas francais” (I don’t speak French) in French. I think she knew where the place was but did not want to help me because I did not greet her. I learned that day that “excusez-moi” is a good start but does not replace “Alsalama Aalekuem.”
The standards of greetings change according to different cultures. I think I do greet people in the United States and certainly in Madagascar, but not enough here in Senegal. It has been frustrating and irritating to acknowledge that I could not accomplish this basic manner, but I am glad to see that it is becoming more natural for me to greet everyone every day. I am learning manners in Senegal but also being aware of mine. It makes me think about the anthropologist Petrakos’ review of the book “An Anthropology of Everyday Life” when he said, “‘An Anthropology of Everyday Life’ not only makes a convincing argument for the necessity of understanding other cultures, but it also looks deeply into our own.”