Greetings and courtesy in English

Greeting is a social phenomenon present in every language. It has been explained in different ways, but a comprehensive definition of the term in Wikipedia gives it as an act of communication in which human beings intentionally make their presence known to each other, to show attention to, and to suggest a type of relationship (usually cordial) or social status (formal or informal) between individuals or groups of people coming in contact with each other.

The above definition is given because it shows the intricacies of greeting beyond being a mere exchange of pleasantries. As such, this article will discuss some forms of greetings and courteous exchanges, their appropriateness, and the standard forms of some of them that have developed variants.

Both in oral and written communication, it is important to start a conversation with a formal greeting by saying “good morning”, “good afternoon” or “good evening”. These should be preferred to saying “hello” in formal situations, particularly when engaging strangers or one’s superiors and colleagues in the workplace. The choice of “hello” should be considered in informal contexts or from persons with whom you have personal relationships.

It might also pass from a senior or superior person but will mostly connote rudeness when it comes from a junior or younger person in a formal setting. The more casual forms, “morning”, “afternoon” and “evening” are equally not so appropriate in formal situations. Notwithstanding the semi-formal nature of chats (especially on social media), beginning a chat with someone who does not know you with greeting forms such as “hello”, “hi”, “morning” and other informal variants gives you out as someone lacking courtesy.

Regardless of your position, intention or information, interactions should commence with formal greetings in formal situations and with strangers. Also, be mindful of the fact that a family member who does not know you might consider you a stranger. It is, therefore, advisable to still greet formally when engaging anyone at all for the first time. To conclude this paragraph, I admonish you to avoid the use of “good p.m.” like the plague, especially in formal settings.

The use of “good evening” and “good night” in English also deserves clarification. Evening, among other similar descriptions, is the latter part, and close of, the day. Hence, it is the early part of the night. The Oxford Dictionary of English gives it as the period of time at the end of the day, usually from about 6 p.m. to bedtime.

This means “good evening” will not be an appropriate greeting before around 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. The online version of the Collins Dictionary recommends that we say “goodnight” to someone late in the evening before one of you goes home or goes to sleep.

This implies that the use of the greeting “good night” could be Nigerian specific. For instance, while it will be more appropriate to tell your friends to enjoy the rest of their evening when you are leaving the pub at about 7 p.m., it is commoner to hear Nigerians say “enjoy your night” in such a situation.

Courtesies, like greetings, are guided by some expected norms in English. First off, the use of “no” and “yes”, as responses to offers, is rule governed. The polite formulaic expression for accepting a request is “yes, please” or “yes, thanks” thus:

Would you like to have a cup of drink?

Yes, thanks (standard).

Yes, please (standard).

When we mean to decline an offer, we simply opt for “no, thanks”, as in:

Do you want to see him now?

No, please (nonstandard).

No, thanks (standard).

Read also: “An undue delay”: Eliminating redundancy in English

Also, a polite expression used to indicate that gratitude or an apology is not necessary is “don’t mention it”. Many a Nigerian simply expresses this as “don’t mention”. However, the expression is an idiom which has to be used in its fixed form, thereby requiring the pronoun “it”.

Thanks for all you do.

Don’t mention (nonstandard).

Don’t mention it (standard).

Another expression that requires the sacrosanct pronoun “it” when expressing gratitude is “I appreciate it”, as in:

Thanks for taking care of them. I appreciate (nonstandard).

Thanks for taking care of them. I appreciate it (standard).

In conclusion, every language has its formulaic expressions for greetings and expressing courtesies. And while the forms can sometimes change, depending on context, they are, at other times, sacrosanct. This piece is a short exposition for users of English who care about linguistic and social norms of greetings and courtesies, especially as non-native speakers.




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