The other day I saw some of my students standing outside a classroom waiting for someone to unlock the door. “Shall I unlock the door for you?” I asked. “Yes, please,” answered the first student. “You didn’t say hello,” added the second. “It says in your book you should say hello.” “That’s true,” I replied, as I unlocked the door. “Hello.” I have lived in Switzerland for 20 years but when I am speaking English I still sometimes forget that you should greet people formally before you start talking to them. (That is why I emphasised it so much in my book).
Of course in German it is made complicated by the fact that you cannot just say “Hello” or “Hi” to everyone. You have to immediately assess what kind of relationship you have with the person and then say “Gruezi” if you normally use surnames with the person and “Sali” or “Hoi” if you are on first name terms. In French it is similar, with “Bonjour” and “Salut“.
When I first came here, I thought smiling at people was a good alternative to saying “hello”, or perhaps even better, because it showed I was friendly, but this is not the case. In shops and restaurants it is crucial that you kick off your interaction with a recognised word of greeting, and then state your business. Their staff feel respected if you do this. In return, they believe they are treating you well if they are respectful and efficient. Being friendly is a kind of optional extra.
This may be about to change. A training programme started last month in the run up to the 2008 European football championship, to prepare 300 restaurant and rail staff, taxi drivers and border guards to welcome visitors to Switzerland. The 300 trainees will then teach others until 50,000 people in total have had the training. One part of the programme deals with behaving in a friendly manner. The trainers are at pains to explain that they are not just talking about the respectful greetings like saying “hello”. It really is going to be about treating visitors as friends. I’m not sure whether this is going to work. Can you really train a nation to change its habits so fast? Or are you tinkering with the cultural values system? If you live in Switzerland, what do you think?