I have a client from Africa. He struggled to understand the vagueness of our North American greetings, “How are you?” and “how’re you doin’?”
In a corner of Africa where he came, the people ritually greet each other with the words:
“Sawubona!” — meaning: “I see you. You are real, not a spirit!”
To which a response is, “Yabo, sawubona!” — meaning: “Yes, I see you, too!”
Inherent in this traditional greeting is the sense that until you saw me, I didn’t exist. When you stand before me, when you recognize me and acknowledge me, you have brought me into being.
In part, this perspective springs from a culture that recognizes our relationships with others. A person is a person because of others.
So this raises questions I invite you to ponder:
How do YOU, in your greetings communicate a sense of sawubona, “I see you”?
What does it mean, to YOU, to “see” the other? What does that look like? Sound like? Feel like?
In sum, to “see” each other is to create a dialogue. It establishes you as a witness to someone’s presence and potential. It invites you to participate in their life, and him or her in yours.
Here’s a deconstruction of how this might play out.
When you come to a meeting, as you mingle with colleagues, you choose to avoid the vague, general formula: “Hi, how are you?” or “How’re you doin’!” Instead, you say something engaging:
“Hi, Linda, I’m so glad you have come to the meeting today…I missed you last month.”
“Wow, nice boots Monica! You carry yourself well when you wear them.”
“Please share your story again, Anne. It is inspiring to hear how well your business has done.”
All of these are “sawubona” greetings. Each says, “I see you!” They mark a place in your world of the person you are greeting — Linda, Moncia, Anne.
You communicate “I see you!” as you say their name. You communicate “I see you!” as you recall a particular circumstance in their life, or some aspect of your shared experiences. You communicate “I see you!” as you acknowledge what that person means to you.
Engaged and attentive are the signals of identity and relationship. This is the gift of full attention.
My client tells a cautionary tale about the automatic, formulaic nature of our greeting rituals and the perils of speaking by rote:
Ping, an international student rolled his Smart car down an embankment, into a deep ditch.
“We’re coming!” would-be rescuers called down to him, “How are you doing?”
“Fine, thank you”, said Ping politely, just as he had been taught, “and you?”
So the would-be rescuers left . . . and that was the last of Ping.