Monday, October 11, 2010

Greetings as an opportunity for worldbuilding

"Hi, how are you?"
"Fine, how are you?"

How many times do you go through this particular interchange in one day? Out of all the people you exchange with, how many actually care to know how you really are - and how many do you care to find out more about? In fact, a lot of times an exchange like this serves no content-related purpose at all, but that doesn't mean it's not important. It serves a very important social function, allowing people to acknowledge one another and express goodwill. This is one reason why I make sure to exchange greetings even with people I may have some friction with, just to try to show that I'm not trying to turn them a cold shoulder.

We spend a lot of time and effort teaching our children to greet others properly. We help them wave "hi" and "bye," for example, even before they can utter words. Our family had a fabulous experience this summer while sailing down the Seine river on the Batobus - we started waving to everyone on the banks, and seeing who waved back. It turned a lovely experience into a delightful one.

What in the world is so delightful about being waved to? But clearly there's something wonderful about it - here's an article about a man who waves to people in the UK, brightening the day of everyone who goes by. Maybe it's that we've learned from our very earliest years to appreciate simply being given recognition by others we encounter.

Another form of greeting we ran into this summer was "faire la bise," or giving the kisses that friends use to greet one another. In most parts of France, it's just two kisses, one on each cheek (typically left, then right). In a few places, it's actually four. In Switzerland and the Netherlands, it's three. This leads to some interesting awkwardness if you're not sure which side to go to first, or can't quite remember how many the local custom demands.

So what does this all have to do with writing? Well, here's an example (very spoilery!). In the book The Jackal, the tradition of "faire la bise"made for a very very interesting final moment - an assassination foiled because the English assassin didn't expect his intended victim, a Frenchman, to kiss another man on both cheeks.

In the case of fantasy or science fiction worldbuilding, you can get a lot of societal mileage out of creating the appropriate greetings. Some greetings reflect a local religion. Some greetings change to reflect the formality or casualness of a particular situation. Just thinking through greetings will make it very easy for you to put up some signposts that you've been working on culture and language.

Here's an example from my own work. In Varin, there are seven different caste levels. For each group, there's a special phrase which people of that group expect to get when they are greeted by members of lower castes.
  • undercaste greeting merchant: "May riches spring from your footsteps."
  • undercaste or merchant greeting laborer: "Fearless labor is the foundation of prosperity."
  • undercaste, merchant or laborer greeting artisan: "The focused mind is the sustainer of life." This one has a special form for those who wear the pin of graduates of the University, "May you take your place in the Record of Great Masters."
  • undercaste, merchant, laborer or artisan greeting servant: "May your honorable service earn its just reward."
  • undercaste, merchant, laborer, artisan or servant greeting officer: "The heart that is valiant triumphs over all."
The greeting tradition applies to all groups except the highest one. No one addresses the Grobal with any sort of special greeting, and neither are they expected to give any to others. The only exception to this is the Eminence himself, who receives special greetings even from his own castemates. The reason why there is no greeting for the highest caste is that I always felt it would be important for caste itself to be invisible to those at the top. In a sense, giving greetings to members of other levels requires an acknowledgment that those social levels exist, and thus having no special greeting for the highest group would allow them never to encounter those daily reminders of their own isolation.

I hope this post gives you a few ideas about how to create opportunities out of greetings. At the same time, maybe it can get you thinking about other social talk opportunities, like leave-taking, or personal introductions, etc. All of these, because of their social nature, are hidden opportunities for you to help your world take on a life of its own.

It's something to think about.


  1. In Switzerland and the Netherlands, it's three.

    When I was in Geneva (2001), I noticed people doing two, three and four kisses on the cheek; of course that city being a major international crossroads, one could never say where the person doing the kissing was from.

    The changing of a greeting from what is expected or the nonperformance of a greeting altogether can most definitely ruffle feathers. :) The SARS outbreak of late 2002-early 2003 caused the then-Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, to start performing the Wai greeting (aka Añjali Mudrā) publicly so that he didn't have to shake hands to avoid becoming sick.

    Muslims of "equal rank" normally shake hands then touch their chest with their fingertips to show their sincerity; younger Muslims will "salaam" their elders by taking the older person's hand and raising it to their forehead (for young children; those who are older will lower their heads to the other person's hand). All of this is done on a gender-segregated basis (except for very close relatives). Men shake hands with other men, but not with women, and vice versa. I've seen quite a few men do wild contortions with their arms to avoid shaking a woman's hands. Of course many women are offended if their hands aren't shaken, especially Western women who aren't knowledgeable about the custom, but the non-shaking of the hand is nothing personal.

    One other "greeting" I've found interesting is the Asian custom of referring to one's friends as either a "junior" or "senior," depending upon whether the friend is younger or older than the speaker. This custom isn't quite as common down here in SE Asia, but it was extremely commonplace up in Korea (and I suspect it was the same way in Japan).

  2. Great observations, JDsg. I especially appreciate your Singaporean and Muslim examples. Yes, in Japan they do indeed refer to friends as "sempai" (senior) and "kohai" (junior), particularly in school-friend settings.