“Namaste,” the Sanskrit word of greeting, is a combination of two roots meaning “I bow to that inherent in you.” It can also take on a religious meaning: “That which is divine in me recognizes the divinity in you.” I believe in the importance of greetings.
Bowing, touching noses, hooking fingers, clasping palms, kissing cheeks, and yes, bumping fists are important signs of acknowledgement. “Bonjour”—the wish for a good day—”shalom, salaam”—a wish for peace—these words are important. The highest virtues among the Bedouin are hospitality and generosity. When visitors come to your door in Haiti, it’s customary to invite them in with the word “oné” or “honor” and for them to answer back “respé” or “respect.” I’m told that a common Chinese greeting means, “Have you eaten today?” For many people in the world, welcoming someone suggests nourishment. West Africans are known to greet the ancestors by pouring libations.
I work as a fifth grade teacher. In the mornings, my students often burst into the room with something pressing to tell me. The first thing I do is slow them down with a greeting. “How are you today? Have you greeted each other yet?” They turn to one another with the curtness of fifth graders. “Oh, hi.” I’m not sure which is more meaningful, the “oh, you’re here, too” or “hi, it’s you again.” Greeting has a calming effect.
In college, I wrote a series of article on race relations for the school newspaper. The day the article about race relations in the dining rooms came out, I worried about showing my face in the cafeteria. Sure enough, my presence was met by denunciations from people who believed I’d gotten it all wrong. I sat down to eat and was soon joined by some thirty black, white, and brown students shouting their opinions. Finally, a young African American woman with tears in her eyes spoke about passing white students who she knew from class or the dorms or extracurricular activities, and how these students did not acknowledge her. The black and brown students nodded in agreement. The hurt was palpable. After a pause, a white woman ventured, “But we don’t greet each other.”
The root of the word “greet” is the Old English word “gher” which means “to call.” In sparsely inhabited places, it’s customary to announce your presence with a call or whistle. You wouldn’t want to frighten anyone. However, to call over and over with no reply, to moan and sob to no avail, this is the word “regret,” which comes from the same root.
When children are born, whether and how they are welcomed makes a profound difference. Giving all children the greeting they need, one that says “I see the soul inside of you” and “come in, my honored guest” ensures we’ll spend less time regretting the simple things we didn’t do to help them on their way.