Monday, February 25, 2013

On Politeness, Hand-kissing, Smiling, and Not Smiling

Dear reader, I shall wander off campus for most of this post, if you don’t mind, to talk about everyday life in Pécs.  I’m sure I’ve mentioned before what a very beautiful city it is.  It is hilly, which reminds me of my native town of San Francisco, and it is mostly encircled by bigger, green hills.  Like San Francisco, it combines beautiful architecture with natural beauty.  Of course, there is no Pacific Ocean here, but on the other hand I think Pécs buildings are far more impressive even than the “painted lady” houses of San Francisco.  But that is neither here nor there, today, as I wish to speak of a couple of differences between my interactions with people in Pécs and my normal interactions back home.  These differences speak, I think to significant cultural differences, though I confess I am not quite sure what that significance is.  Let’s see what you make of them.  Here they are.  First, Hungarians strike me as far more polite in everyday interactions than I am used to in the U.S.A.  Second, Hungarians seem to smile far less, at least with strangers, than Americans do. 

            Let me illustrate my first point first.  Just the other day, I went to a map store.  (I love maps, dear reader, so you may imagine my delight to find an entire little mom and pop store devoted to maps, just down the street from my apartment  I must say, small neighborhood businesses in Hungary seem to doing better than in the U.S.  I think it is because people seem to drive less here).  Anyhow, I entered this fine establishment, wielding my child-level Hungarian, and some knowledge of what one is supposed to say upon entering a store in this country.  Our conversation went (translated literally from Hungarian) something like this:

Me: Good Day!

Proprietress: I wish you a Good Day!  Please, is there something I can help you with?

Me: I don’t speak Hungarian well, but I want to look around.

Proprietress: Please, help yourself. 

As I looked around, and asked questions, the storekeepers were extremely helpful, and when new customers entered, the greeting conversations started again…

Woman enters: Good Day!

Proprietress: I wish you a Good Day!  Please….

Young Man enters, says to Proprietress: I kiss!  I am looking for….

In the U.S., Pepe Le Pew kisses hands 
Here let us stop for a moment, dear reader, and talk for a moment about kissing hands.  You read that right: the young man said to the older woman, “Csókolom,” meaning, “I kiss,” which is the usual short form of “Kezit csókolom,” or “I kiss your hand.”  I hear this a lot, dear reader. Children say it to adults they don’t know well.  Beggars say it to women who give them something.  Grown men say it to women who are a generation or more older than themselves.  (Indeed, I say it to my wife’s great aunt).  Many men older than 60 or so seem to say it to any woman they don’t know well.  Imagine, dear reader, if one heard a man saying “I kiss your hand,” in the U.S.A., or saw him actually kissing someone’s hand.  This man would probably a stock cartoon or movie character, most likely a native speaker of one of the Romance languages, whose character was supposed to be charming to the ladies, but ultimately insincere and over the top.  And yet here, among Hungarian speakers, it is perfectly ordinary.  It is perhaps becoming rarer than it used to be, but it is still quite common.  Obviously, there is a gender angle to the term, but is part of a whole suite of such words which sound extremely polite in English, but are everyday civilities here.  Here is a short list of common Hungarian pleasantries, with their English equivalents, followed by their literal translations.

Hungarian Term     English Equivalent         Literal English Translation

Csókolom                hello (to older person)      I kiss (your hand)

köszönöm szépen     thank you very much        I thank you prettily

legyen szíves            please                               be of a heart to…

jó napot kívánok      good day                          I wish you a good day.

bocsánat                  sorry                                 forgiveness

örvendek                 nice to meet you                I celebrate (this meeting)

It is not just that these literal translations sound really formal to American ears, but that one hears these formalities all the time, walking around Pécs.  Is it just that I tune out formalities in my native culture?  I don’t think so.  I think Hungarians use these more and the formalities are just more formal to begin with.  Moreover, you may remember from an earlier post how my students always greet me, in English, with a “Good morning” or “Good bye” if they come within about ten feet of me before or after class.  To me, it seems like these pleasantries and words endow everyday interactions with a certain, well, pleasantness.  And I like it.  It makes me feel quite at home and on good terms with people I meet. 

            I feel less at home when I reflect on the culture of smiling that I have encountered so far.  To put it briefly: Hungarians simply smile less than Americans do, at least with strangers, and I have trouble figuring out social situations as a result.  Let me give a couple of examples.  About a month ago, in Budapest, as I was packing the car to travel from my sister-in-law’s apartment to Pécs, I had just propped the building’s front door open to carry a couple of heavy suitcases to the car, just a handful of steps away.  As I was doing so, a grandmother and granddaughter returned to the building, entered, and the grandmother directed the granddaughter to remove the prop.  I smiled, and said in what I think was perfectly good Hungarian, “I’m just going to pack the car a little bit.”  Grandmother and granddaughter paused, turned, and stared at me for what felt like a minute or two.  The expression on their faces was one of inscrutability, at least to me.  No smile, no frown, not a blank expression, but for me an expression that I simply could not read.  It seemed to say: ‘we are just going to stand here and examine you for a minute, without expressing our feelings about you.’  Then, without a word to me, the grandmother told the granddaughter to leave the prop, and I continued packing, but was strangely unnerved the encounter. 


Here’s another example.  This past Sunday, as my family and I were late to go to the special children’s Mass at a nearby church, we decided to go to another nearby church, a famous Mosque-turned-church in the center of Pécs.  This Mass was also full of children, though mostly school-age and, as it turned out, an amazingly quiet and well-behaved bunch.  (I suspect that Hungarian children have a special skill in being quiet in certain circumstances.)  As my two- and five-year-olds were mostly being quiet and only emitting occasional noises, I thought this was not bad behavior for church.  Apart from a particularly loud episode after the end of the Mass, this would have qualified as good behavior back home in Oshkosh.  Nevertheless, I got a lot of these inscrutable looks from various adults and children throughout the Mass.  In almost every case, the adults would turn around, not at all bashful about staring at me, and just sort of look at me, with this expression that was neither blank nor readable.  There was no shaking of the head, no raised eyebrow to express disapproval.  Neither was there a smile and an “I’ve been there, buddy” look like one usually gets in Oshkosh.  Instead there was, again, this inscrutability.  Again, I found it rather unnerving.  What did it mean?

            I know that Europeans often stereotype Americans as insincerely friendly.  All of this asking “How are you?” and smiling is meaningless if you don’t really want to hear how someone is or you are smiling just to smile and not out of friendliness.  For me, though, the absence of the smile is disorienting.  Usually, an American smile signifies to me that ‘things are going well,’ ‘this interaction is a happy one,’ ‘we are all well-meaning here.’  The absence of a smile, as a result, makes me wonder: ‘wait, what is wrong here?  what are you thinking?’  I am, perhaps, over-sensitive about this, but it is difficult to get along without the social cues I am accustomed to.  I love the expectation of formal politeness I have encountered and I have gotten used to it very quickly.  The scarcity of smiles, though, at least among strangers, is something I am still figuring out. 


  1. The first time I heard the "kiss hand" was at the DM on Kiraly. It sounds very much like the Polish word which means I'm listening, often used for answering the phone or when having a long conversation to tell the other person you really are listening. I was so puzzled why someone is Hungary was using a Polish word. I asked my Hungarian teacher about this and it took her a bit to figure it out with my poor pronunciation to tell me about "kiss hand." But there is one word in both languages that is the same -- reklama, advertisement. I saw this word first on a small office building somewhere down by the train station and thought it was a Polish company doing business in Pecs. But then one day my Hungarian-English dictionary fell open on the right page and there it was -- reklama. Love the blog, now I can relive my semester in Pecs.

  2. Reklama, in turn, is one that often puzzled me. It sounds a bit like "proclaim" in English, though I should be wary of false cognates. I am pleased to compare notes, Lori!

  3. Late comment, but: this is all perspective/expectations, right? Others see the standard US pleasantries between strangers and acquaintances as insincere, while they are what we are used to, and we know that others do NOT want or expect information about our trials and tribulations. Just an indication that life is moving forward reasonably close to normalcy. Without this signal, we are uncomfortable. I don't think you are over-sensitive.

  4. Thanks Nathan. You're right. I crave smiles and nods because I have learnt to expect them in the US. On the politeness note, though, I think there is something really nice to expected politeness. Even if it is pro forma, it sort of elevates the tone of everything. Although my Hungarian is still not that good, I get the impression that most Hungarian ones, very much including working-class Hungarians, try to speak a very pretty, polite version of the language, at least with strangers. I like it. Then again, maybe that is because I don't expect such polite language.