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Hello, Hey and Hi – the meanings behind greetings

Meeting someone new can be very daunting, particularly when you’re visiting a new country or speaking a second language. There are handshakes to grasp, words to remember and many unspoken rules that could lead to hosts being offended.

Discussing greetings with Michael Rosen on this week’s Word of Mouth was linguist Dr Laura Wright and former diplomat Andy Scott, author of One Kiss or Two?, a book about the origins and psychology of greetings.

Here are a few things we learned about greetings from Word of Mouth…

Why do we use greetings?

The simplest explanation is that they’re a way of easing tension and anxiety when people meet for the first time.

It doesn’t always have to be "Hello" or "What’s up?" – a simple nod or some awkward laughing can go a long way in first-time introductions.

It doesn’t always have to be "Hello" or "What’s up?" – a simple nod or some awkward laughing can go a long way in first time introductions.

In addition, greetings are also used to alert others to your presence. Saying 'Hello' or waving at someone across the street is a friendly way of letting them know you’re there.


This greeting was originally intended for hailing someone from far away, coined sometime around the 19th century.

It’s clearly a modern word because of the way it’s pronounced, with the second syllable being stressed instead of the first, which is not common in the English language.

"Hello" only became a common greeting after the invention of the telephone, when it was used as a way of grabbing the attention of the operator and the person on the other end.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, wanted to use the nautical term "Ahoy!" instead, but it was the word "Hello" which became part of our everyday vocabulary.

While "Hi!" was also used to greet people from a distance, it was originally intended to be used on horseback, but is now a more informal way of saying "Hello".

Why we say hello

Dr Laura Wright explains the origins of the word "hello" and other modern greetings.

What’s Up?

The most complex part of learning a language is the unspoken rules and cultural markers hidden within languages.

In the 1500s, the Dutch humanist, Erasmus, travelled to England and upon arriving he described seeing people kissing everywhere.

Sometimes questions are used as greetings, but the answers aren’t always straightforward.

In English it’s perfectly normal to say "How are you?" when greeting someone, but this doesn’t always require a full description in response. Often a simple "Fine, thanks" is what’s expected.

Pucker up

In formal settings in some parts of the world, the international community is accustomed to using the triple kiss as a greeting. Once, twice, and back again for luck!

Think that’s excessive? Think again!

It’s traditional to greet people with four kisses in certain parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Also in France, children are expected to greet new strangers with a kiss on the cheek at the behest of their parents, and not doing so is seen as very rude.

Meanwhile in certain parts of Afghanistan, you’re expected to kiss eight times on the cheek in formal greetings.

Four greetings from around the world

1. Sudan

Men shake hands while patting each other on the right shoulder with their left hands.

2. Namibia

Those of lower status often kneel and give a round of applause as a show of respect for those who are of higher status; this is followed by a hug.

3. Tanzania

A common greeting among some tribes in northern Tanzania translates as "Greeting to you whose saliva sees and sours vegetables".

4. China

It’s common to say "Have you eaten?" or "Where are you going?", but this isn’t an invitation to dinner. Instead, these phrases are used as a greeting, and can often confuse those learning Mandarin as a second language.

While these customs may seem very different to those in the United Kingdom, this might not have always been the case.

In the 1500s, the Dutch humanist Erasmus travelled to England, and upon arrival he described seeing people kissing everywhere.

Do formal greetings require kisses?

There could be a link between formality and the number of kisses.

Overall, greetings allow us to ease tension and anxiety, to alert others to our presence, and even to show respect.

The sociologist Harvey Sacks once used the term "minimal proper conversations" to describe greetings, and former diplomat, Andy Scott, expanded on this when he said that greetings are "the smallest thing we can say to each other, without giving offence or thinking that things are somehow not going so well between us."

So whether you’re saying "Hi!" from up on your horse or sharing eight kisses on the cheek, it’s probably best to make sure that your greeting fits with those around you and the formality of the situation.

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