Peace Corps trainees in Omnibus 119, my group, come from all over the country and we disagree about core aspects of American culture: What constitutes traditional food and music, whether or not Washingtonians speak neutral, unaccented English, if the “Seattle Freeze” is real, and on and on. But we all agree that back home, greetings are pretty simple. Strangers get a handshake; close friends and family members, a hug; and for guys, that special fist-bumping, backslapping ritual that sometimes ends in a half-hug. While we might say “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good evening” on the phone and in formal settings, it’s far more common to say “hey,” “hi,” “hello,” and “what’s up.”
In Ecuador, a simple hello is complicated. When I see my host mom first thing in the morning, we half-hug each other while putting our cheeks together for an air kiss and ask each other how we rested — which is not the same greeting used the rest of the morning (good day). Greetings also change for the afternoon and evening. My host mom also requires an entirely different set of conjugations than my friends, because in Ecuadorian culture, showing older family members respect by addressing them formally is a sign of affection.
Air kisses, with cheeks touching, are the expected way for women to greet strangers, so I’ve learned the etiquette since arriving more than a month ago. First, always go to the right so you don’t bump faces, like I did with my host cousin and uncle. Your hands go on the upper arms or the shoulders so you don’t misjudge the distance, as I did with my counterpart teacher at the high school where I’ll be practicing TEFL methods. You should always expect a new greeting with the new day, so you aren’t surprised and overwhelmed by everyone on Peace Corps Ecuador staff coming for you. And, if you’re sick or your hands are dirty, say something and your host mom’s friends will gently squeeze your elbow instead of getting sticky from the fruit you ate.
It takes getting used to, especially since men shake hands with each other. It’s strange to see an Ecuadorian stranger shaking hands with another Peace Corps trainee and then have him swoop in for a kiss — but it’s even more awkward to try to shake hands.
Greetings are so important in Ecuadorian culture that they were part of the essential training on our first day in-country. If you don’t greet each person when you enter a room, even if you’re just dropping in to grab something or you’ve already said hello to everyone that day, it implies that you are angry or upset. If you enter a meeting late, it’s expected that you interrupt to apologize and say hello to the room as a whole, and that afterwards you go up to every person individually for a brief chat. United States efficiency does not fly in Ecuador!
For us trainees, it’s also hard to know when to greet someone formally or informally, because norms of respect in the United States don’t necessarily hold true here. I was brought up always to use Mr. Smith, Ms. Brown, and Mrs. Doe when addressing someone older than me. No one has been introduced to me as a “señora,” and the only people to address me as “señorita” were strangers on the bus who found my elbows too sharp at rush hour. Even my students just call me “teacher.” Add to that the difficulties of remembering verb conjugations and knowing how to apply them to each new stranger and a simple greeting becomes a high-stakes cultural experiment!
“From Kirkland to Quito” chronicles Kirkland native Emma Tremblay’s experiences in Quito, Ecuador, where she is a Peace Corps trainee. Tremblay is a 2012 graduate from International Community School and 2016 graduate from Colgate University.