the process of greeting a family member, acquaintance, or stranger is extremely formalized. The intricate nature of ritual greetings and inquiries can be bewildering from a Western
perspective. While some similarities are present, many elements of conversation
, personal contact
, and body gesture
are very different. The end goal, however, is the same whether you're greeting another in Ethiopia, England
, or any nation of the world: to make everyone comfortable with each other. Some may malign
as dishonest, artificial, or conformist, but overriding concern for the comfort of others during social interaction
has been an element of human cultures for thousands of years. It is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
The most important, and universal aspect of the Ethiopian greeting is the initial inquiry after the health of one's counterpart. This inquiry is made whether the person is family, friend, or stranger. It is also not dependent on relative social status. Very much equivalent to the English greeting 'How are you?', the appropriate answer also falls in line with English. One will reply, "Thanks be to God, I am well. How are you?" whether one is well or not. It is indiscreet to give an actual account of one's health. As Ethiopia is an extremely religious country and devoted to a Christian tradition that has stretched back more than a thousand years, all positive answers are prefaced with 'thanks be to God'. This shows proper reverence and establishes a comfort level in shared religion.
For passing greetings this is enough, however if one is going to engage in further interaction with one's counterpart, much more is necessary. Before speaking both individuals will bow to each other. Even between equals this bow will be very low. When greeting one superior in rank, it is customary to touch the right hand to the ground, and then to the lips in supplication while bowing. In family contexts, children are expected to go even further with their parents, prostrating themselves fully to the ground and kissing their fathers' or mothers' feet. Any head covering, especially the Christian devotional shamma, is to be removed during this time.
Once the bow has been finished and the first inquiries made, about one to two minutes of further formalized exchange is required. Each individual is expected not only to ask after the health of each other, but also after their family members, animals, harvest, business, and any elements of each other's personal life with which they might be familiar. Again, all answers are always prefaced with 'thanks be to God', and they are always positive; any bad news must be saved for later in the conversation. There is no cognitive dissonance between saying one's harvest has gone very well, and then later relating that the whole crop has been devastated by famine and locusts. It is simply part of the greeting. For acquaintances who are in a hurry and cannot remain to continue through this whole process, greetings will still be carried out while each person is walking away from the other. As long as one is still within hearing distance, one is still expected to call out, "AND your NEW CALF, HOW is SHE?!"
Besides the bow, other gestures are common during Ethiopian greetings. A hand shake is an informal gesture only made between equals, but when it is the hands will be held throughout the entire process of formalized health inquiry. Kissing is also extremely common, regardless of the sex of one's counterpart. For friends these kisses will be placed on the cheek, one between each inquiry of health. For relatives these kisses are placed on the mouth.
Once all of this has been accomplished, the actual conversation may begin. It seems inefficient from our Western perspective, but likewise our greetings may seem cold and soulless from an Ethiopian perspective. In either culture, the comfort in relationship between both parties has been established, and further conversation will proceed much more smoothly.
Ullendorff, Edward. The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.