“Hola” and Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings

Place: IKEA store in Tenerife
Q. Where are the plates?
A. Hola

Place: Our favorite Churrería in Santa Cruz
Q. Could we have one order of “churros,” please?
A. Buenos días


Place: A bus stop in La Laguna, talking to the bus driver
Q. How often does the bus leave?
A. Buenos días

I asked the bus driver about the custom of greeting before answering, and he said it is all about demonstrating “Cortesía/Amabilidad”. If you do not greet someone before asking them a tactical question, it is seen as not being friendly. First, you should greet, and then ask a question. Thus, by walking up and asking a question without greeting it was seen as not friendly in the above Question/Answer dialogues. Therefore, the people with whom I was conversing, indirectly let me know that I had broken cultural norm.

When processing this phenomenon with my kids, we identified that in the USA such greetings are usually not expected when interacting with someone at a store, restaurant, or bus, etc. In fact, in certain parts of the USA, it could be viewed as inefficient and and as an encroachment on someone else’s time. And, this could be viewed as rude or worse.

The cultural comparison example described here and many others have always been very interesting to me. First, both cultures are trying to show respect to others. The approach is just different. Second, both approaches could be viewed as unfriendly, rude, disrespectful, or dishonoring. Third, the result of the behavior is the exact opposite of what was intended. Forth, we all have a lot to learn. Both when we offend and we are offended by such cross-cultural interactions.