Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On Greetings As Meaningless Pleasantries




There are two aspects of American culture that I will never get accustomed to: (1) The practice of separate bills [or checks as they call it] for meals, and (2) The practice of greeting anyone and everyone with ‘How are you doing?’ [Often it becomes a lazy ‘How ya DO-ING as in the sound you would make riding a pogo pole with springs]

Lets get (1) out of the way first: I can never understand how Americans can act so calmly, and stone-faced, with no sign of awkwardness or embarrassment whatsoever, when at the end of a meal with a friend [s], they calmly ask the waiter for separate checks. In Asia, this is unheard of, no matter how poor anyone is. Why not, be more gracious, and yet practical as in Asia, by letting one party pay for the meal. The one who wants to do the paying would insist on doing so, while the other would protest most vehemently, but ultimately only one party would pay the bill, with a promise [and insistence] by the other party to reciprocate such an act of graciousness and generosity on the next occasion, which should be as soon as possible. This is the way it should be in a civilized world, or else why bother to have a meal with a friend. I have heard, but never witnessed, if what they say is true that this separate bill thing can be extended to occasions when one meets a lady and she agrees to go for dinner. Known as ‘going Dutch’, it surely is the most ridiculous, and uncivilized thing to do on a date. No truly Asian lady would like the idea of sitting down for a meal with her date, and then paying her share of the bill! How ungentlemanly is the closest I can get to describing it in relation to American culture.

Now, lets talk about my main bone of contention [or my ‘beef’ as they say]: This habit of greeting someone with a silly question like ‘How are you doing’ is stupid and most annoying to say the least. This greeting, like all greetings have become meaningless pleasantries-that is, it is just a sound to acknowledge the presence of another person who is in close proximity to you in physical space. This need to acknowledge the presence of another person in your physical space goes back to our caveman days when it is possible that if you didn’t like the person nearby or feel he is a threat to your meal, property or your family, you would kill him. But now those days are gone and greetings have become meaningless pleasantries. So why complicate things by asking ‘How are you doing?’? I heave a tiresome sigh every time I am greeted thus, before answering : ‘Good’ And then I can add ‘Thank you’ or if I am feeling particularly chirpy, ‘ And how about you’. This would bring on the next stage where my greeter replies with ‘good ‘ too, and me wondering what else I should say or is that the end of the ritual? In extreme cases, the original person being greeted would also reply to the greeter’s ‘good’ with a final ‘good’, meaning ‘good that you are feeling good’ which to me sounds condescending and patronizing.

Tell me what else I am supposed to say or what else I am allowed to reply to ‘How are you doing’. I cannot reply with ‘no good’ or ‘real bad’. It simply is not expected and indeed impolite of someone to reply to ‘How are you doing’ with anything other than ‘good’. So what is the use of such a greeting? With a ‘hello’ I can just say ‘hello’ too and that ends the whole silly ritual. Or a ‘Hi ‘ would be even better and shorter and less torturous. Or why not, be like the Chinese and greet someone with ‘Have you taken your meal? This is a most meaningful and practical way to greet a person. For nothing can show that you care more for a person than by asking him if he has taken his meal. Because it is a meaningful greeting, you can easily reply to it. If you have filled your stomach, just answer ‘Yes’ and say Thank you’. If you have not, just say ‘No’ and perhaps add that you will soon be taking your meal. Either way, your greeter will have fulfilled his social obligation to acknowledge your presence and to show that he feels good about your presence. Even the Malay custom of greeting someone with ‘What news?’ is infinitely better than ‘How are you doing’. The ever-so-polite Malays will reply with ‘ News is good’ meaning ‘everything is well with the world and I am happy’. In the Malay world this would usually lead on to conversation about the families and friends of both parties eg how is your wife’s arthritis, is your daughter still working in the Ministry of Finance, do you know that I met your friend Khalid at the mosque and he told me he was going to Mecca, do you know that Hassan’s son is now a Doctor and runs his own clinic downtown etc

And so I suggest that Americans do away with ‘How are you doing’ and replace it with a grunt to acknowledge the presence of another person nearby. Greetings have become meaningless pleasantries in an urbanized environment where really you couldn’t even care less if a person dropped dead right in front of you [perhaps greetings still mean something in rural Oklahoma, North Dakota or Tennessee]. So why make them unnecessarily elaborate? Grunts can be quite expressive and a whole range of emotions can be expressed by grunts.

And my last ‘beef’ about America is that I can never remember how many ‘s’, ‘p’ or ‘e’ in Mississippi and Tennessee

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