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Greetings Social Individual
“Greetings are found among many higher primates, as well as any number of preliterate societies and all civilized ones” (Goffman 1971:93). In this essay I will explore some ways in which we express, display and negotiate our social relations through greetings. I will also question if greetings are as individual as society may believe them to be, or are they socially constructed by norms, expectations and situations.
Both Goffman and Kendon have analyzed the expected behaviours when a greeting ritual takes place in Goffman’s chapter on ‘Supportive Interchanges,’ and ‘A description of some human greetings’ by A. Kendon. Using these and other sources, I will explore the ways in which we are expected to act whilst involving ourselves in greeting rituals and if the same applies to other cultures where greetings can also be observed.
According to Goffman, “greetings and farewells provide the ritual brackets around a spate of joint activity” (Goffman 1971:79). This suggests that despite culture, language, and individual differences, without what he refers to as ‘supportive interchanges,’ interaction would make no sense.
This spurred much research into the social construction of greetings. Kendon observed six different social situations where greetings would take place, and he noted down greeting behaviours and stages which commonly occurred in most greetings. The first of these stages is sighting, this means that one or both individuals must, “…identify him as the particular individual he may wish to greet.” (Kendon 1990:165) Once sighted, how quickly the individuals begin a greeting interaction depends on, what the other is doing at the time of sighting, what the individual is doing at the time of sighting, and how urgent the interaction is. (Kendon 1990:165)
Once sighted, the greeting ritual can occur, starting with the ‘distance salutation’, (Kendon 1990:172). This can consist of a call or wave, depending on what the other is doing, and how far away they are (Kendon 1990:172). He also observed a head toss, a head lower and a head nod, which are distinguished by duration and the situation, for example the nod usually only occurs in passing greeting situations (Kendon 1990:175).
The next stage is the ‘Approach’ (Kendon 1990:179). When the two participants move towards one another, and orient themselves so they are facing one another. On the approach, many other behaviours can be observed, “Glance exchange is generally associated with the distance greeting,” (Kendon 1990:180) where neither individual will keep eye contact with the other, exchanging only glances, until close enough for the final stage, close salutation.
Kendon also observed the ‘body cross’ during the approach, where one of the individuals “…bring one or both arms in front of him.” (Kendon 1990:185) Grooming is also likely to be observed in this stage of the greeting. The final approach is most likely to feature vocalisation, smiling and palm presentation, (kendon 1990:188-191). This is the stage which links the approach to close salutation, where both individuals are standing face to face and a hand shake or embrace are likely to be exchanged.
Although these stages have been observed in only six social situations, each behaviour is recognised regularly, and they vary depending on the individuals and the formality of the situation. Most of them are recognisable in every day life. Kendon is not arguing that all of these behaviours take place in one greeting interaction, as many may be specific to certain individuals. These behaviours are also more likely to occur an ‘initial greetings’ or first greetings, as Goffman argues that, “each succeeding contact will be managed with an increasingly attenuated greeting until after a time the two will exhibit the standard minimal middle-class social recognition only” (Goffman 1971:84).
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Despite these observations and findings, there appear to be social barriers which determine some aspects of our greeting rituals. Irvine argues that, “As a result of the status associations of the greeting, any two persons who engage in an encounter must place themselves in an unequal ranking: they must come to some tacit agreement about which party is to take the higher ranking role and which the lower. This ranking is inherent in any greeting no matter how abbreviated, because the mere fact of initiating a greeting is itself a statement of relative status” (Irvine 1974:175).
Although to some degree I do agree with this statement, as other research has shown similar findings, for example, in Kendon’s explanation of the ‘body cross,’ he suggests that, “It seems to occur, in a word, in the more vulnerable of the two participants” (Kendon 1990:185) Describing it also as a “protective movement” (Kendon 1990:185).
This suggests that in greetings, one individual is always of a higher social status that the other. However, I do not agree that this takes place in all greetings, as passing greetings are too brief for this to take place, and it does not account for surprise greetings.
Other research also strongly suggests that social status plays a part in constructing our greeting of one another. “First, the prince sent a message to the king to ask if he could call on him. Permission being given, the prince emerged from his apartment, and proceeded through the ante-room and withdrawing room of the kings apartment to the door of his bed chamber.
The king… came to the door-but no further- to welcome him… shortly afterwards the king sent a message to ask if he could call on the prince. Permission being given, the king emerged from his apartment and was met by the prince who, being of an inferior grade of royalty, came out of his apartment to the top of the stairs to greet him” (Girouard 1985:147). This is clearly an outdated document, but it does show that different social ranking, even throughout history, have effected how one is greeted.
More recently, in Kendon’s birthday party, “it would appear that the further the host moves from the centre of the occasion’s action, the greater the show of respect for the guest he creates,” (Kendon 1990:168). This argument is also supported by Irvine, “ If a person ranks relatively lower than oneself or than some other person present, one may delay greeting him until more important people have been greeted” (Irvine 169), and by Goffman, who says, “ A long-absent neighbor will ordinarily be owed less of a show than a long-absent brother” (Goffman 1971:83).
This is typically showing a sign of respect for those of a higher social ranking than ourselves. It can be observed in many social situations, despite some research being outdated, where the host of a party gives a more exaggerated greeting to relatives over distant acquaintances, and where the host of a party would greet, for example his employer, before any co-workers or friends.
It can also be observed when more elderly people are greeted by someone younger than themselves. All three sources agree with each other to an extent and support the theory of greetings being socialty constructed, as in most societies, there is a clear understanding that respect must be shown to guests of more importance.
Greetings are also present “… in every human society and not a few animal ones” (Goffman 1971:73). What is interesting however, is that even across cultures, most greetings can be defined as, “a question; an interjection; or an affirmation” (Firth 2000:10) Questions involve asking the other a question, such as “How do you do?” an interjection, for example “hello” and an affirmation, termed as a “… form of assurance, not a conveyance of information…” (Firth 2000:10), such as “good morning.” These may differ between individuals, but the mere fact that they can be classified into three groups, strongly suggests that they have been socially constructed.
A traditional Chinese greeting can be translated as “Have you eaten your rice?” which of course, is a question, and in Tikopia when greeting one another “… as well as Europeans used the forms of ‘good morning’ etc” (Firth 2000:13). This can be classified as an affirmation. Firth goes on to say that, “The more elaborate formal procedures of many African and Asiatic societies have tended to be given up in modern times as familiarity with Western patterns has permeated these societies” (Firth 2000:33).
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From this evidence, it is clear that not only do cultures have their own socially constructed forms of greetings, some have been abandoned, and there is more of a universal construction of greeting rituals. This could be due to the fact that there is much more communication between different cultures in modern society, and this is made easier if greeting rituals and other aspects of cultures are integrated.
This is not to say however, that all cultures have the same greeting practices, even within Europe, “American or English people who might exchange a kiss in private greeting may refrain from such intimacy in public. But this is a highly cultural matter- a Frenchman in office may bestow a kiss on another on a formal public occasion when he would not do so at an informal private meeting” (Firth 2000:4).
Goffman also argues that some cultures have different greeting rituals, as behaviour in some Arab cultures suggests “… Women do not greet men on village paths and men do not greet women” (Goffman 4). These cultural differences show social construction relating to greeting in what is and isn’t socially acceptable. It also does not suggest that their greeting one another is any different from our own in circumstances where it is socially acceptable to do so.
Despite minor cultural differences, relating to social custom, and what is acceptable or not, most cultures have greetings which can be classified into three groups. This evidence strongly suggests that in all cultures, individuals are bound by the social constructions of greeting rituals.
Greeting rituals are also present where face to face interaction does not take place, such as telephone calls and letters, and, “… not only are such communicative structures relevant on a micro-level of social organisation… but they are also on a macro-level as well” (Schiffrin 1977:690), for example, this could include television broadcasts and public speeches, where the level of access is presented to the audience by a host. Social construction is also created by the expectations connected to greetings and farewells, “Greeting behaviour is expected to express pleasure, parting behaviour to express sadness. It is a matter of common knowledge that the reverse may sometimes be the case” (Firth 2000:7).
As greetings and farewells “… are ritual displays that mark a change in degree of access” (Goffman 1971:79), without them, determining the beginning and end of conversation would be impossible, therefore they have been socially constructed to prevent this from happening.
There is much evidence which strongly suggests that greetings are socially constructed, through greeting behaviours, how we treat people of authority and even throughout different cultures. There are, of course, some differences, which vary from different cultures and individual preferences. However, these differences are still within a certain social acceptance of what is expected of greeting rituals. Therefore, what society may feel are individual actions, are in fact constructed by social norms.
Firth, R. (2000) “Verbal and bodily rituals of greeting and parting” in “The Interpretation of Ritual: Essays in honour of A. I. Richards.” pp 1-33 Harpercollins.
Girouard, M. (1985) “Cites and people. A social and architectural history.” New Haven: Yale University Press.
Goffman, E. (1971) “Supportive Interchanges” ch.3 in “Relations in Public.” Harpercollins College Div.
Irvine, J. (1974) “Strategies in status manipulation in the Wolof greeting” in R. Bauman, and J. Shererzer, (eds)“Exploration in the Ethnography of Speaking” pp167-191. London, Cambridge University Press.
Kendon, A. (1990) “A description of some human greetings”ch.6in “Conducting interaction: Patterns of behaviour in focused encounters.”Cambridge University Press.
Schiffrin, D. (1977) “Opening encounters” American Sociological Review [online] <http://www.jstor.org/> [accessed on 30th November 2007.]
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