Greeting here is a big deal.
Such a big deal, in fact, that the first question I got asked about my new puppy was not “What are you going to name him?” but instead was “Are you going to teach him how to greet?”
You greet everyone here, even people you’ve never met or will never meet. On the regular I’ll extend my warm greetings to people’s families, who could live miles or regions away. I assume it is in-step with the Americanism “word to your mother”.
To give you a low-down, I’ll just skim the most basic types of greetings I encounter on a daily basis here.
1. The verbal time-dependent greet
Repeat after me: Morning-o! Afternoon-o! Evening-o!
It’s a good thing I live in a small place, because I say one of the three above exclamations to every single person I pass, every day of my life. On the street, to the people walking past my house, every time I see a neighbor, in the market or on my bike, it is just plain rude if I don’t greet them.
The time reference would seem obvious, but can be dubious at times. For instance, if it is an especially hot day the “Afternoon!” or “Afternoon-o!” might get whipped out at 10am instead of noon. It is more related to how miserably hot it feels, and not so much what the clock says. (That said, it is 9pm as I write this and 83 degrees in my room. I feel slightly chilled. I suppose you do get used to the temperature, afterall.)
2. The standard handshake
Not much to explain here. When you meet someone, you often shake their hand.
3. The fancy-pants shake-n-snap
Cameroonians love a good handshake, and sometimes that handshake involves a snap at the end. Not a sassy “uh-uh, girlfriend” type of snap, but a snap where through some sort of sorcery your hand manages to cause the proper amount of friction with their hand on the release and produces a snap. Most of the whities here have fully embraced the shake-n-snap, but I hand yet to get a, ahem, “hand”le on it.
Now, often they’ll add a little spice to your handshake (as if the snap wasn’t enough) and throw in some tricky hand maneuvers, like grasping and releasing your hand a certain number of times. Like everything in Cameroon, this is too much spice for me. Often I leave feeling like I just lost a game of thumb-war.
Repeat this hand-ballet every time someone cracks a joke, agrees with you, disagrees with you, thinks up a good idea, thinks up a bad idea, comes or goes, or generally looks your direction.
4. The most uncomfortable handshake
This handshake always leaves me feeling really, really white.
When greeting your superior in Cameroon, it is common for one to shake with the right hand and have the left hand touching the right elbow, as though you needed support due to the heavy and daunting handshake of someone so fantastically supreme.
You can usually see this handshake coming from a mile away. The left arm starts bending as soon as handshaking time comes around. Personally, it makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. I have had chiefs do this handshake to me, as well as established businessmen, children, and people my own age. I feel it is alienating when I freely allow someone to greet me like this, so I head them off at the pass and mirror them.
Fine, you want to greet me like I’m your superior? Good luck, cause I’ll hand it right back at ya.
5. The double wave
Similar to the one above, but from afar and not as dramatic. Two hands in the air, shake ‘em at the wrist to wave to someone you respect.
6. The faux-greet
This one is just for my American homies out there. You know the wave you do at little kids? The one where you open and close you palm in a “bye bye” sort of motion? Turns out, that’s not a hello here, that’s a signal to come closer because you need to communicate with someone. This one has gotten me in trouble a lot, especially with small children.
Well, folks, that is about it. As you can guess, I’m going to be awkward as hell by the time I get back. Not only will I not be able to speak American English anymore (it is already fading…) but I won’t be able to properly communicate with Americans, either. Certainly, introductions will be an amusing and embarrassing sight. On the plus side, if anyone needs a secret handshake, I’ve got a doozie waiting for you.