Greeting is of ultimate social importance. Everyone likes to be acknowledged. Greeting is especially important to the Bamasaaba. Yet, people must recognize each other within socially and culturally appropriate structures. These rules within a culture are often unspoken. People from a specific culture operate within their social norms instinctively.
A child watches her mother greet other children, strangers, younger or older women, men who are relatives and many other types of people. Later, when the child attempts to greet people on her own, her mother may provide the words for the child to mimic. The child feels approval when she has greeted appropriately. Disapproval causes her to reevaluate her words and actions in order to do better next time. Finally when the child grows up, she is greets in a culturally appropriate way without conscious thought or decision.
One of the things that makes you a foreigner to Masaabaland is you did not grow up with these social and cultural norms. In fact, you grew up with a totally different set of guidelines as to what is appropriate or in appropriate in any given situation. As with many cultural difference between Western countries and Masaabaland, you will find opposites apply. The very thing which is most offensive in your home country is the most polite course of action in your new home. Let’s take eye contact as an example.
In places like the U.S. or U.K., direct eye contact is a sign of respect, truth and friendliness. If a person looks down while answering your question, you automatically assume the person is lying or at the very least, not forthcoming. Yet in your new culture, making direct eye contact, especially with a person who is older or of higher personal rank, is very disrespectful.
So as with all cultural norms, greeting is more than just getting the words right. An entirely new set of ideas, customs, and social behaviors in Bamasaaba society await. In fact, in order for you to learn to greet appropriately, you must take a conscious and deliberate approach. It may seem odd to rehearse what others are able to do spontaneously, but that is exactly what is required.
Respect Looks Different
The first difference you will notice is women and girls kneel down when greeting to show respect. While a female foreigner is not expected will kneel, she should at least sit while greeting a man who is seated.
A hand shake often accompanies both welcome and farewell salutations; even among people who know each other. Hold the inside of your own right elbow while shaking hands for an additional sign of respect.
It is fine to call out a greeting if a friend is at a distance. For example, it is permissible to voice a salutation from the path to someone standing in their own yard. Technically the greeter on the path should stop walking while the greeting takes place. In an open place, such as the path, the first one to notice their friend may initiate the greeting. However, if you visit a person in their home, you should wait for them to greet you first. In fact, the host first welcomes a visitor while outside, then again after seating the visitor.
Relatives By Marriage
There are very definite taboos concerning greeting a relative by marriage. For instance, a son-in-law and his mother-in-law are walking toward each other on the same path. If he wants to give her money, he will simply leave it there on the ground and walk away. He does not make eye contact or greet her. She will pick up the money and continue on her journey without a word of acknowledgement. Another example is: a father-in-law will never shake hands with his daughter-in-law. The uncle of a woman’s husband may not sit near her, even in a public taxi.
Generally speaking, in both English and Lumasaaba, the response to a greeting is standard regardless of the situation. We are and always will be fine, even if our house has just burned down. In the same way, Bamasaaba cultural etiquette only permits a positive stock response. After the initial greeting one may expound on their less than ideal situation if the relationship and situation allows.