In the U.S., when we walk past someone we don’t know, what do we say?
In a crowded urban environment, people tend to ignore each other entirely. But while walking in country neighborhoods, small towns, or in parks, where people are friendlier, most of us generally say “hello.” I never heard a dramatically different response until I spent six weeks living and studying in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
My group took a day trip to a tiny pueblo, and while I was walking down a dusty back street, a local housewife, wearing a faded housedress and apron approached me from the far end. As we got closer, we both smiled, and as she passed me, she suddenly said, ”Adios.”
Her remark sounded extremely odd to me. But I realized, after some thought, that our connection only lasted for a few seconds. So, saying “goodbye” logically made just as much sense as “hello.” It had simply never occurred to me before that someone would address the end rather than the beginning of these extremely short interactions. And truthfully, if some one I passed like this in the U.S. had said “goodbye” to me, I would have thought they were crazy.
U.S. workplaces increasingly have a mixture of individuals who grew up in different cultures and countries, so small differences of this type easily arise, especially if a co-worker, employee, or supervisor hasn’t been in the U.S. very long. These differences have nothing to do with someone’s professionalism or competence, but when they lead to misunderstandings or judgments, they can negatively impact workplace relationships and performance evaluations.
Being for a time the “crazy gringa” in Mexico, who, despite my best efforts, made frequent amusing or offensive mistakes in communication because of gaps in my cultural or linguistic knowledge, changed forever how I view these situations.
While most of us haven’t had the chance to learn the specific “rules” for every culture, if we can accept that various cultures have different rules for interactions that are just as logical (or illogical) as our own, we are less likely to assume that a different verbal or behavioral response in the workplace is wrong or interpret a difference, no more important than saying “hello” versus “goodbye”, as a deliberate offense.