WHEN I GREET my friends in Slovak, I usually begin in my American way: "Ahoj, ako sa máš? (Hi, how are you?)"
Although they're unsure why I'm so often concerned about their well-being, they respond with a whole conversation, leaving me to wonder later why it has taken so long to get from point A to B at a school or a company.
This happens when I greet people I meet regularly at work, or my colleagues. So far, I've learned the doorlady is fine, but has back pains. The secretary's daughter is preparing for her wedding. My colleague's son kept her up all night with nightmares, and my students are busy drinking and studying. (In that order, I think.) Basically, I know everything except how to escape the fact that when I said "Ako sa máš?", I didn't actually expect to hear all the details.
This situation is a result of the different expectations when greeting in English compared to Slovak. It's a particular discrepancy between the two cultures that results in unexpected small talk, and the idea, which has been expressed to me on many occasions, that Americans are insincere. Therefore, I'd like to dedicate this article to clearing the air on this one (vyčistiť vzduch v tejto záležitosti).
The etiquette of greeting is a cultural phenomenon. In Slovakia it is customary to say Dobré ráno (Good morning) up until around eight in the morning and later Dobrý deň (Good day) to everyone, no matter whether they are a shop assistant, your neighbour from upstairs, or your superior at work. That's where it ends. Counterparts part ways. If there is a desire to be friendly with an acquaintance, some form of small talk is entered into without any introductory phrase.
This means Ako sa máš? (informal) and Ako sa máte? (formal), or their variants Ako sa ti darí? and Ako sa Vám darí?, are reserved for friends, and are always considered genuine questions to which full answers are expected.
In America, it is customary to extend the greeting "Hello, how are you?" to acquaintances and friends alike. Acquaintances will answer "fine", ask in turn, wait for a similar response, and continue on their way. Friends will decide whether to answer fully or not, as they know it's a real question, not part of greeting etiquette.
This is not a question of insincerity, but a difference in the proper and polite way of greeting those who share our time and space. In fact, I have realized that I know more about my colleagues, their status, and well-being as a result of my American small talking in Slovak.
I open a door for conversation with my students, who appreciate the opportunity to speak in English about their daily life outside of class. To me, the benefit of a greeting that includes an inquiry is the potential for a thoughtful response.
Translating each word individually and then putting them back in neat rows is the worst thing anyone can do. Not only does the text lose its meaning, but may also give the wrong idea. Let's be more generous with the benefit of the doubt when we talk to someone of a different culture and assume we all mean well. The majority of us do.
16. Apr 2007 at 0:00 | Emily Heinz