On greeting people and saying sorry


Whether or not you’re Nigerian, you may have interacted with an older Nigerian who was not particularly tactful: they told you what they thought regardless of how it might make you feel (I guess older people, regardless of culture, tend to be a bit more plain spoken). I’ve talked about tact among Nigerians before, and a particular incident involving my grandmother’s neighbour and my weight. Generally speaking, Nigerians aren’t shy about speaking their minds, but for all that bluntness there is a lot of politeness and respect when it comes to greeting people.

Most cultures have the usual pleasantries: good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good night, I’m sorry, please, and thank you, but Yorubas have taken it to the another level (maybe all Nigerian groups are like this? Please tell me!). Aside from the equivalents to what I just mentioned (e ka aaro, e ka san, e ka ale, o da aaro, e ma binu, e jo, e se), you can greet people in several other ways, depending on the situation (unfortunately this blog post will be riddled with Yoruba errors as my written Yoruba is self-taught):

E ku afoju ba: greeting to someone who has just welcomed a visitor

E ku afoju sana: greeting to someone who is expecting a visitor and anticipating their arrival

E ku ewa: recognition of someone’s work in the beauty field (usually to hairdressers)

E ku idele: said to someone who has lost a loved one

E ku ijoko: greeting someone (usually a guest) who has been sitting for a while

E ku ile: the greeting a visitor would say to the people he or she is visiting upon entering their home

E ku iro le: this one makes me smile—it’s not good afternoon or good evening, and it’s not good night, it’s a greeting you say just before evening!

E ku ise: recognition of someone’s work

E ku imura si le or E ku ipa le mo: greeting said to someone who’s preparing for an occasion or future event, such a packing for a trip or for a move to a new place

E ku isimi: greeting to someone who is resting or chilling, hanging out

E ku inawo: recognition of the financial resources someone has invested in an occasion, or praise to someone who has just finished an event or occasion

E ku owo lomi: said to a household that a baby has just been born into; “owo lomi” literally means “hands in the water”, presumably from bathing the baby

E ku wahala: kind of an apology for the stress or trouble someone has been put through

Those are the ones that I’m aware of; please let me know of any other phrases that fit the “E ku ______” pattern.

Saying sorry

If you’re a fellow immigrant from Nigeria, this may have happened to you before: you’re talking to somebody in your new country, let’s say they’re a colleague, and they mention something bad that happened. You say “sorry” and they reply with “It’s not your fault!” or “No need to be sorry, you didn’t do anything!” Showing sympathy is very much a part of, dare I say, Nigerian culture, with phrases like “eh ya” or “pele” among the Yorubas and “ndo” among the Igbos being very common. Pele and ndo are powerful words because they can be used as a show of sympathy in many situations. We tend to translate pele as “sorry” in English, though maybe “I feel for you” is more accurate.

Generally speaking, although we don’t usually have a problem apologizing for something that we were not responsible for, but it sounds odd to people in a society like Canada’s that celebrates the autonomy of the individual. So instead of saying sorry, I now say “sorry to hear that” because the person I’m talking to understands that phrase to be an expression of sympathy rather than me trying to take responsibility for something that I had nothing to do with in their opinion.

  1. Does your culture have specific greetings for specific situations?
  2. Have you ever had a situation like the “sorry” one, where something is lost in translation due to cultural differences?

20 thoughts on “On greeting people and saying sorry

  1. I thought apologizing was a Canadian thing! Chinese are often blunt as well, especially with one’s appearance (on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to weight). For the older generation, it’s also acceptable to ask about salary and marital status. And yes, friends of family may try to play matchmaker. A family friend once tried to introduce me to a guy who seemed okay on paper (has an MD), but I then found out that he had NOT BEEN ON A DATE IN TEN YEARS. I had just finished grad school at the time and he was probably in his early 30s. First of all, he was nearly 10 years older than me, which for a 23-24 year old is A LOT. Secondly, TEN YEARS? This means his last date was as an undergrad. I mentioned that problem to my parents, and they didn’t seem to realize it was an issue. To me, it’s code that he’s either really crazy or deeply closeted/down low.

    • Yes, Canadians have a reputation for being apologetic—I guess out of a fear of offending someone! As a country we have to be careful that we don’t get walked over as a result of our easygoing nature! In this post I was talking about how Nigerians say “sorry” as an expression of sympathy.

  2. Haha, when I first met the hubby after moving back to Nigeria, I think we were chatting on Whatsapp or something. And I asked, “Are you okay?” The next thing that happened was he called me and asked me why I would ask that kind of question. It didn’t occur to me that in Nigeria, “Are you okay?” generally means “Are you alright in the head? Are you stupid?”

    I had such a good laugh that day after I explained that in the US, it just means “Are you fine?”

  3. My Yoruba people can greet for Africa! I tuele for them! ahahha. Even when one visits the loo, there is a greeting! I tease …… NOT! ahahaha. Hubby used it to greet me in our early years of marriage when I asked him to teach me all the types of greetings in Yoruba language.

    When one gets elderly, they believe they owe no one any explanation for their actions or try to be a people pleaser. Afterall, they are old and have ‘seen life’. So wetin pesin go do to them ? ahaha.

    Yes, it is a habit in us Nigerians to say ‘sorry’, regardless we are the cause. I still do it with un knowingly.

    • Lol, hi Nitty! I’m glad that you can relate to this post! I had no idea there was a greeting for trips to the loo—now I’m going to ask my mom!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Proudly Representing My Tribe. Sometimes we are just being overprotective and oversympathetic(not sure if that word exist) with words, just to show how much we care.
    Although it does come sometimes with a side-effect.
    @Berry’s Comment was funny, if i was the hubby, i would likely think the same too. hahaha

  5. I just had this conversation with a colleague, Jummy! It’s funny because Yoruba greetings and their inaccuracies when translated into English tend to bother me. I don’t mix business with pleasure, so when I deal with older Nigerians, I tend to be more abrasive.

    This is unintentional but I think I know why thanks to this post. I’m a little averse to nuances like “eeya, pele, hmm hmm” when speaking formally because I think it weakens my communication and credibility. There is this straightforwardness and shrewdness attribute to the english language, which I like. Ha!

    I know this is slightly off topic but I couldn’t help reflect on how several, seemingly minute nuances in Yoruba language can either make you a respectful or a disrespectful child.

    P.S. My colleague wondered why Yorubas are so respectful with greetings but will insult you in the next 5 minutes if their demands are not met. Lol! :)

    • You bring up some good points, Margaret. The nuances get to me at times too in the instance when two people haven’t spoken in a while and one person comments on it by saying “E ri wa, e bere wa”. I sometimes say “Can’t you just say hi and not add an element of the guilt trip to it?!” But it’s a cultural thing.

      English IS more direct and that can be handy: this weekend someone said something to me in Yoruba and because of the directness of my reply they thought I didn’t understand what they had said until I told them what they had said in English. Lol they weren’t pleased that my reply was deliberately blunt.

      Lol your colleague has a point—Yorubas are funny!

  6. He he – love my people to smitherins! :D

    I remember one sallah day when we were younger, everyone was busy with preps, and I had sat down for a bit to catch my breath. Only for my younger sister to walk past and say “e ku aise” (greeting acknowledging that you are doing nothing!) I so flipped out on her, told her she really did not have to greet me if that was the only option in her arsenal… Imagine! Hian… :)

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