How we greet people equals how we treat them



Have you ever thought about how you greet  people whom you don’t know? What are the greeting words that we use towards a stranger on a street, bus, store or any other public place?


Let’s stop for a moment and think! It’s common in Kazakhstan that strangers call each other as if they met an old friend or someone from the bosom of their family. When we see an elderly person in a bus, we usually say: “Ата, отырыңыз’ or ‘Садитесь, женщина’ if not worse yet. – ‘Grantdad / woman, take a seat’. When translated, it sounds weird, doesn’t it? Imagine a hypothetical situation when, say, a British man visiting Kazakhstan and used to be greeted as ‘Sir’ comes across people who greet him ‘Дедушка’ or worse yet ‘Дяденька’. How surprising would it be for the person to meet so many unexpected ‘kinsfolk’ throughout the country where he just arrived? 🙂


Both Kazakh and Russian share the feature of such excessive familiarity. The two languages of Kazakhstan have lost their traditional usage of greetings for historical reasons — major political and social perturbations of the past. There were revolutionary societal changes promoted by the Soviets at the beginning of the 20th century and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end which somewhat brought the country back to its traditional social norms in many respects.


However, it did not and, I believe, could not happen in regards to greetings. The Soviet period completely eliminated the Russian pre-revolutionary equivalents of ‘Sir / Ma’am’ ‘Сударь / сударыня’. The Soviet ideologists succeeded in their endeavors to get rid of ‘Господин / госпожа’ associated with inequality and the ‘bourgeois’ way of life. ‘There are no masters / servants (господ / слуг) in the USSR’ – You would hear from Soviet people. The Soviets introduced a new word ‘Товарищ’ literally meaning comrade.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union the word ‘Товарищ’ has also been disavowed and even obtained an ironic connotation. Moreover, it may carry a somewhat opprobrious meaning. Nowadays, calling someone ‘Товарищ’, you are likely to get a response: ‘Я вам не товарищ’. Compare ‘Этот товарищ’ or ‘Вот товарищ с Востока танцует жестоко’ (the line from the song by Машина Времени, a famous rock-band). It sounds somewhat condescending and sarcastic, doesn’t it?


So at present, we don’t have neutral words to greet someone whom we have just met but have not been introduced to. One using the words ‘Сударь / сударыня’ or ‘Господин / госпожа’ would sound either too official or too old-fashioned and perhaps would look like a nerd remote from reality.


Having read all this, you may justifiably ask ‘And so what?’ ‘What’s a moral here?’


This is where it comes to education and social exclusion / inclusion. This is all about including and educating people. To create an inclusive society we should respect each person’s choice to be themselves and start from this basic level of greeting and treating a stranger on the street. By pointing out someone’s gender / age or naming someone as our kinsman like we do every day, we treat people as we want but not as they would have probably liked. First of all, by doing so we get unceremonious. Informal forms of communication might be appropriate when a person has shown his / her disposition to get closer but in the situation when you met someone for the first time in your life, it falls out of basic courtesy, in my book. Secondly, when calling someone ‘Женщина’ or ‘Апа’, we limit people’s choice of identity labeling them and putting into Procrustean confines of our own perception. There are people who do not look like their age. One (a female deeming herself a lass) can take offense being called ‘Бабушка’. And finally, a lack of neutral or respectful greetings may put people into awkward situations. Having low vision, I myself often don’t know how to greet someone and ask for something. ‘Извините’ (Excuse me) is not always appropriate.


  • ‘Брат, tell me please when we arrive’, – I often say to a taxi driver and afterwards think ‘What if there sits ‘Ақсақал’ or ‘девушка’? 🙂

I am not offering here ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions, but let us just think of our every day interactions and how to make them less restrictive. We need to have some forms of neutral and, I would say, inclusive greetings free of gender / age / social status biases which would not be labeling and which we could teach our children.


P.S. I don’t have children yet, please don’t judge and don’t label! 🙂


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