To Say “Selam” or not? That is the question.

Have you ever found your self in a situation where you are walking around in a store, or the mall, or a coffee shop and you run into a fellow Ethiopian?  Its an  awkward moment where you make eye contact, have a moment of recognition, and you instinctively want to greet your Ethiopian brother or sister.  I say the moment is awkward, because for some of us, our American instincts take over and we don’t want to greet this complete stranger.

The hesitation to greet is prevalent amongst those of us born and raised in areas with high populations of Ethiopians.  The more Ethiopians you see on a regular basis, the less likely you are to get excited and greet an Ethiopian you meet randomly.  I have learned to adjust my personal hesitations.  Under some circumstances, when you are in an area where there aren’t many Ethiopians, it is normal and natural to greet one another warmly with “selam” or a head nod of recognition.  It is a moment of comfort and familiarity.  Then those of us that grew up and live in areas where the Ethiopian population is high, almost feel the need to run and hide or even avoid eye contact.  I know this sounds awful, how could you dare avoid eye contact with your fellow Ethiopian?  But, the reality is, if you grew up in a heavily populated area you probably don’t get excited to greet other Ethiopians, in fact you may just want to go about your day without speaking to anyone and pretend not to hear or see the familiar voices and faces.  In my experience sometimes you just want to go about your day, without being identified, recognized, and without expectation.  One of those days where you just think “Can I live?”

This Ethiopian American girl is proud to be Ethiopian, I speak the language, and clearly love being who I am. However, I’m guilty of those awkward moments of whether or not to say Selam.  One day , in DC, I stopped to get gas.  I was in a rush and wasn’t really surprised to see an Ethiopian attendant.  I ordered my gas and almost headed back out without being identified, when he shouted “Indaye abesha nesh” I said “yes”.  He said, “selam ateyem”.  Translation “Hey aren’t you Ethiopian?” “Aren’t you going to say hello”  I stopped and greeted him and thanked him for my gas and apologized that I was being rude.  Of course he was right to expect a greeting, but I wasn’t sure whether the greeting was necessary.  After all, we were in DC…where you can’t travel more than 5 miles without seeing your fellow Ethiopian.

Its an awkward moment, but I guess we just have to use our best judgment.  I guess the answer is to follow your gut instinct, after all it is better to be polite than not.  But it would also be weird to greet every person you see on the street…imagine how long it would take you to walk around U st. in DC or downtown silver spring if you greeted everyone.  On the other hand, if you live in an area where seeing an Ethiopian is rare, I think you should certainly greet the person, if you feel comfortable.  Really, there is no right answer.

Share your thoughts here, let me know what you do when you encounter that awkward moment.  .

2 thoughts on “To Say “Selam” or not? That is the question.

  1. As a white American, I’m clearly missing something, but I’d like to understand for my writing (so please forgive me if this sounds rude). How do you know when meeting a stranger that he or she is, in fact, Ethiopian? I can identify New Englanders by their accent or pattern of speech, but I get the impression from your post that there are non-verbal queues as well.

    1. Well your question is not really rude. Most Ethiopians and others who have been around many Ethiopians can easily identify whether someone is Ethiopian. Ethiopians have distinct facial features: nose, eyes, cheek bones. If you have met several Ethiopians you begin to see a pattern in the facial features and can quickly identify whether that person is in fact Ethiopian. For example my best friends who are not Ethiopian can identify Ethiopians when they see or meet them because they have been around my family and other Ethiopian friends. Its really all about familiarity but sometimes you can be wrong and mistake our neighbors Somalians or Kenyans for Ethiopians.

      Other non-verbal queues include head nods, gestures, mannerisms, even the way Ethiopians shake hands. To identify these non-verbal ques you would probably really have to take time to immerse yourself in the culture.

      Feel free to share any more thoughts or questions!

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