Upon meeting a person, whether known or unknown, a sales clerk or an intimate friend, most Americans exchange some sort of greeting. It may be a simple “hello” or “good morning,” or a slightly longer inquiry about one another’s health. There are many variations on these interactions, often entirely interchangeable, but some form of greeting is expected. To an outsider entirely unfamiliar with American culture, these interactions might seem, at best, simple exchanges of information, or else entirely pointless. In reality, however, these are culturally loaded questions, however little the participants or onlookers attend to them.

At the simplest level, greetings are phatic exchanges. In fact, the simple “hello” and “good morning” are purely phatic, serving no other purpose than to establish recognition and a human connection between two individuals. This bond is comforting and necessary to interaction in American society. It communicates recognition, respect, and caring, often prefacing a conversation or request, and in a society that places such emphasis on equality among its members, this is crucial.

It is only when people deviate from the prescribed patterns of greetings and health inquiries that the utterances gain communicative significance. This, our observer may notice, happens primarily among close friends and family members. Here, the requests, while maintaining their basic phatic motivation, elicit more accurate information, and both sides may share negative or extreme emotions. Instead of the standard response of “fine, how are you” to a request, the observer might hear “well, the kids are sick again and the boss just trashed my proposal.” Although both responses could be uttered by the same person in the space of five minutes, it is the situation and the speaker’s relationship to the interlocutor that determine which is appropriate. In order to successfully interact in American society (or, for that matter, in most Western cultures), it is necessary to master which greetings, questions, and answers are appropriate in which situations, and our observer should keep this in mind when approaching an interaction.