Thursday, September 02, 2010

Greet Expectations

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there are very few places in the world where the act of greeting someone on the street is as complex and fraught with difficulties as here in Csikszereda.

Let's start with Hungarian, to get us going. Now in Hungarian there are many ways of greeting someone, many of which are entirely dependent on a perceived or actual relationship between greeter and greetee.

Informally, you can go with szia or szervusz, unless of course you are greeting more than one person, in which case it is sziasztok or szervusztok. Apparently szia is slightly more informal than szervusz, but this is not something I've ever really encountered. You can also, as I may have mentioned before, actually use hello.

However, even if you know the person, you have to be a little bit careful with such levels of informality, because saying it someone to whom you ought to be granting some form of respect (older people, VIPs, etc), could cause offense. Even if you don't reckon they've earned that respect. To an older woman, for example, you are supposed to go with Csókolom which is sufficiently respectful for that group. (However, I occasionally worry that if I offer a Csókolom to someone who is younger than me, or around the same age, or just marginally older, but who seems "obviously" older, I risk causing age related offence).

To an older man, or someone you don't really know (assuming they don't fall into the "older woman" category), you need to offer some form of good morning/day/evening etc. This would be jó reggelt (good morning) or, gussied up a bit, jó reggelt kívánok (I wish you good morning - it's not clear what else you might be doing with your "good morning" if you're not wishing it, but there you go). Others include jó napot (good day) and jó estét (good evening). OK, so far so good, but then you have to remember that what you might consider the morning is not necessarily the morning to a Hungarian (nor to a Romanian for that matter, but we'll come to that). Say jó reggelt at 11am, and you are looked at like you are mad. In villages it's even worse, because the morning very definitely seems to finish at 9am. A 9.15am jó reggelt would probably get you kicked out of the community for being a lazy good-for-nothing who didn't actually wake up at 4 to feed the chickens (or whatever it is that people do at 4am)

It's been 6 years now, and I still mix some of this stuff up. Yesterday I was going to pay the phone bill and saw someone I sort-of-half-knew, and offered a cheery szia. The moment it left my mouth I knew that this was almost certainly a jó napot situation and that I had erred. The really tricky thing is that if you are greeted first you don't necessarily respond in kind, like you do in English. Children (especially polite ones) tend to Csókolom all adults, and I may have inadvertently confused one or two kids in my early days here by offering the same greeting back.

OK, so that sums up the greeting challenges in Hungarian, but here of course there is another level of difficulty - the fact that some people you meet aren't actually Hungarian, but Romanian (this being Romania and all that). Thankfully, Romanian doesn't seem quite as complex as Hungarian in this regard. Here in Transylvania there is the use of szervusz (though I am sure it's not spelled like that by Romanians), but apparently that's only here, and not elsewhere in the country. Then there are the various good (insert period of day) greetings, in which like Hungarian, there is a "different" understanding of what constitutes "morning". I said bună dimineaţa (good morning) to two Romanians I met in England a couple of weeks ago (at about 11am) and they laughed as if I was an idiot, and said "Dimineaţa?" with heavy emphasis. You can just about get away with the bună bit on its own most of the time (you couldn't just say any more than you could just say "good" in English).

The extra level of challenge here is knowing who you should greet in Hungarian and who in Romanian. Obviously if you know them well, it's no issue, but sometimes you sort of half know someone, but can't actually remember what their first language is. There are two Romanian blokes who live in my building for example, but I am always confusing them with a Hungarian bloke who also lives there, and so I frequently guess wrong (and I never seem to learn).

The only one I always get right is my own slightly pathetic little rebellion against organised religion, whereby I always offer a cheery jó napot kívánok to any Orthodox priest I walk past on the street (knowing full well that he must be a Romanian), and a similarly breezy bună ziua to Catholic priests (knowing full well that they must be Hungarians). I like to think it throws them a little, and it makes me feel vaguely smug for a nanosecond, so that's a result in my mind.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

great post Andy, I had a good laugh ...

I think your situation is familiar to most people who live in a foreign country ... navigating the others' greetings customs is almost always quite difficult ... just think about the many different greetings you use back home, and how they befit different situations ...

By the way, does anyone know how a Romanian adult should answer a Hungarian kid's Csókolom? :)

Most of the time I use "Servus", but I always felt it's not the best answer ... I think an Hungarian adult would use "Szia" ...

E.B. said...

Heh, in Romanian you can't just say "bună!" to anyone - there is a certain degree of familiarity in this kind of greeting :)

Bogdan said...

In Romanian, "bună!" is informal, "servus" (in Transylvania) or "salut!" (elsewere) seems slightly more formal. (it's the kind of greeting to colleague)

Also, "Bună dimineaţa" occasionally gets shortened to "'neaţa!". (also having a bit of informality)

Older women should, of course, be saluted with "săru-mâna".

Andy H said...

Thanks everyone
@anon: Yes, there are lots of greetings in most languages, including my own, but we don't have the same levels of formality (plus, unlike here, there is only one language to deal with). For example you can say hi, or hello, or good morning to, let's say, an older woman who is your neighbour, and none of them is disrespectful or misplaced. There is "how do you do?" but the only people who use that are characters in English language teaching coursebooks.

@E.B.: Thanks. Yes, I should have made that clearer.

@Bogdan: I wasn't sure how to spell săru-mâna, but thanks for adding it. There's a bloke I see round here often who always greets all men with a firm handshake and a "Sanatate" (women get săru-mâna and then sanatate). I can never remember his name, so always refer to him as Domnul Sanatate

Pistefka said...

When I moved from Transylvania to Hungary I was struck by how the people here say "Hallo" much more often than (the Hungarians) do in Erdély. It quite irrritated me at first - I mean, thats one of OURS isn't it - but have learnt to live with it. In fact it can be quite useful, as it seems to be friendly while not quite causing offence like the improper use of "szia" might. "Szervus" isn't used very much in Budapest, but you here "szavasz" sometimes.
Naturally "hallo" has the plural "Halosztok", and hten there is the rather silly form "hally-ho." Then there is "mizu"....
Reporting such novelties to my Transylvanian friends and in-laws causes much hilarity (and they get to feel that the Erdélyiek speak purer Hungarian than the Pestiek.)


Once, before I knew better I said "Jó napot" to some young kids in Torockó. How they larfed: "Azt mondta, hogy 'Jo napot' tee hee hee hee"
I'm sure I heard grown men in Cluj saying sărut-mâna to each other on occasion.

Na, szia

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

How about a non-vocal wave or a wink, or just a nod of acknowledgment? My favourite in the US is a "Hey!" as you walk past. "Howyadoin?" works if you actually know the person a little, though I still make the mistake of actually bothering to answer "Good, thanks." But it's not required. And I'm always tempted to say, "Oh God, terrible, I've just been so down lately... Hey, come back!"

Bogdan said...

also, speaking of greetings and salutations, as some etymological trivia, the Romanian word for 'to kiss', a săruta, is derived from Latin salutare. (to salute)

Maria Pakucs said...

Can't beat Samuel's blunder when he greeted the secretary at my work, a lady in her 50s (so a definite Sarutmana/Csokolom) with a loud "Sa traiti!", which is very military and macho. This is how an old crazy man who lived next door to us in Bucharest used to greet him, so he just passed it on.

Andy H said...

Pistefka: yes that hello gets me every time. But people here use it far more frequently for goodbye than hello, which is really disconcerting. Especially on the phone, I find.

Ian: Yes, I do try the non-verbal acknowledgement but it's not popular here, and I think comes across as a bit rude to some people, sadly. It's just not common, so people think you're being a bit off when you nod/ offer one of those half-arsed slightly embarrassed British waves

Thanks Bogdan. As far as I can tell (which could mean I'm way wrong), sszervusz/servus comes from Latin, through German into Hungarian, and thence on to Transylvanian Romanian, which -if true-must make it one of the longest most roundabout routes for a Latin word to end up back in Romanian

Andy H said...

Thanks Maria. What was the look on her face?

olahus said...

@Andy: may I get your permission to translate this great article into romanian and repost it on my blog http://maghiaromania.wordpress.com ? I don't know when I'll be able to do this (I'm having a verry busy autumn) but when I'll have time it'll be a great thing to do, than share

thank you in advance

Olahus

E.B. said...

"What was the look on her face?"

Hehe, I guess she said: "At ease, my lad, at ease!"

Anonymous said...

Very off topic, but I would like to help a friend do a little bit of genealogical investigation. Are there any archives of obituaries in Romanian, especially ones in Bucharest?

Andy H said...

I'm sure there are, but have no idea how you'd find them. Possibly contact one of the newspapers?

Olahus: of course

Orsi said...

In Hungary you can say "Csókolom" not only to older women, but all women with whom you are in formal relationship. Eg. I find it very polite (and it IS polite) when a man whom I do not know (well) greets me with "Csókolom". It is not dependent of his age or mines; I am 29 anyway.
But it is very annoying for me when older men start "tegezni" without asking me- it is very rude, I hate it. But it can be another topic. :)