The informant is a good friend from one of my clubs. We had met up for lunch and she shared many of her Ethiopian traditions and customs with me, as well as some superstitions of her people.
Informant: “When you say hi to people… It’s a mess! You have to do it in a line, right? Okay so what happens is… If I was meeting another family and I showed up with just me and my mom, she would meet the most important person in that group first. Like, she would say hi to them, I’m standing behind my mom.”
Me: “Like the head of the family?”
Informant: “She says hi to the head of the other family first, then to the second person, then to the third person. And then when she’s done, I go do it. So like if… Say we came to someone else’s house, so if we’re the visitors, she would say hi to the most important person, and I can’t say hi to people. I say to people after she has done it, because she outranks me.” (laughs)
Me: “So you just stand back and just watch?”
Informant: “Yeah, I stand behind her while she greets the most important person, then when she moves on to the second most important person, I can go on to the first important person. And then my little brother is still waiting, and then when I’ve moved on to the second person, he can talk to that first person.”
Me: “Oh, so you don’t have to wait to go through the whole family?”
Informant: “Yeah, but you got to go through the thing in that order.”
Me: “And what’s like the type of greeting?”
Informant: “Well what we do is, we do the… um… it’s either a handshake and a hug, and then it’s three kisses on the cheek.”
Me: “Is there a specific cheek?”
Informant: “It’s um… Well from my perspective it’s that cheek, then that cheek, then that cheek (She points to my right, then left, then right cheek).”
Me: “Oh, so switching back and forth.”
Informant: “Yeah. And then you say the stuff.”
Me: “Wait, wait. If you’re the visitor, you have to kiss the person? Or they… it’s kind of mutual?”
Informant: “If you’re the visitor, you walk up to the person who’s just let you into their house. It’s very rare where you’re both randomly meeting each other. It’s usually because you are going to someone’s house, or to an event, like there will be a hostess or, like, a person to go say hi to.”
Me: “Is there a different custom when you;re both strangers? Like, your not in someone’s home?”
Informant: “If you’re both strangers, you don’t actually kiss. You kind of just… touch cheeks!”
Me: “Or if you’re like friends, meeting up in a neutral place? Where no one’s, you know..,”
Informant: “Unless, they’re not really… I mean you can kind of tell when you’re looking at people, if they are traditional. Like, if I was meeting another seventeen year-old, I would say ‘Sup.”
Informant: “I’m not, you know, going to go through the whole thing. But if I was meeting, like, a stranger who was maybe like thrity-five, I would say the greeting in Amharic, but I wouldn’t necessarily, like, kiss them, but I would definitely go for the hug, because the hug is like the first step. But if I was meeting some who was like older, who was like really traditional, who was like dressed the way, I know for sure that I have to be nice, and I have to do it. It ‘s usually, the older the person is, the more you kinda have to bow when you go in for it. When you say hi you kind of nod tot the person. So if it’s like someone your age, you might just go like that, (head nod). But if it’s someone who’s maybe seventy, you give a little more effort because you’re sort of recognizing that they’re older than you.”
Me: “So what’s the order again?”
The informant shows me the Ethiopian greeting, starting with the bow, then the hug, and lastly the kisses.
Me: “I thought it was very more like, BOW. (laugh)
Informant: (laugh) “Yes your majesty! No, it’s kind of more organic than that, ’cause you’re both doing it at the same time to each other, so it’s more… relaxed. It’s really relaxed, and it’s not nearly as formal. Even if it is a formal event, it’s just saying hi. That’s how we say hi, so it’s very… ’cause it happens so often, it’s not something that is really ceremonious every single time, ’cause it’s just like… Over the quantity it gets really relaxed, because you just do it so much.”
Me: “Would you do this with family members too?”
Informant: “Yeah, but not if I said hi to my mom in the morning, I’d just giver her a hug. But if I was seeing like my uncle for like a really long time, that’s how I would say hi to him.”
Me: “That’s awesome!”
Informant: “But not to my littler brother. If he came home from college, he would be like, ‘Sup.” You know, it’s kind of… and age thing.”
Background & Analysis
The informant is a student here at USC as well, and although her mother is from Ethiopia, she was born and raised here in California. However, she often goes back to Ethiopia with her mom to visit friends and family.
The greeting customs in Ethiopia are much more complex than I thought! It appears to be a combination of greetings from other areas around the world, like the bowing from asian cultures, the the hug from most latin cultures, and the cheek kisses from Europe. Whereas in America, a simple handshake will suffice, Ethiopans make a clear destinction between hierarchies just through a short gesture such as a greeting.