Greetings and Salutations!
The first thing to know about how Jamaicans greet each other is we don’t.
‘Greetings’ are quiet things for Government Ministers or people from countries with once yearly power cuts, and snow.
Here in the tropics meeting people is an exciting contact sport, the rules of which are determined by age, location, religion, gender, but mostly by degree of ‘spirit tek’.
Me Spirit Nuh Tek Yu
(my spirit does not take to you)
“Spirit Tek” is an important part of Jamaican culture. It’s kind of like intuition but with an African-retention spice-up. If our spirit tek yu we’ll probably like you, but if not ‘dog nyam yu supper’ (which means you’re out of luck).
‘Hi, how yu do?’ with a barely noticeable raise of the ends of the lips, is what happens when we spirit don’t tek yu. Or worse a dry “Oh, hi”. You may suddenly be wondering if that Jamaican at your office spirit don’t tek yu because their greetings are as dry as a piece of burnt toast … you may be right … or maybe they just don’t know if you’ll be able to respond in kind. Keep reading, pick up a bottle of rum as a gift, and try the friendship again when you get home.
Me Spirit Tek Yu!
(my spirit takes to you)
The greeting most non-Jamaicans know is ‘Whaa Gwaan’ (what’s going on) made infamous by Hollywood and President Obama who casually dropped it on us like his mother tongue. Variations include Wh’appen (what’s happening), Wah You a Seh (what are you saying) and How Yu Stay (how are you). If we spirit tek yu, this will be accompanied by anything from a slap on the arm or a laughing ‘shub’ (shove) to somebody jumping into your arms. Jamaican greetings are not for the weak of heart or body, especially if we like yu.
Who Yu Is
(who you are)
Our greetings are also personalised. What comes after the ‘whaa gwaan’ will give you a pretty good idea of where you stand.
If you’re a woman aged 15 to 40 then expect ‘Whaa Gwaan Goodie?’ (‘what’s going on lovely lady’, the latest way Jamaican women affirm each other). The correct response is ‘Me De Yah Good Gyal’.
If you’re over 40 then you are an ‘Auntie’ or a ‘Mummy’ (especially used as a marker of respect by younger men). Be careful though, Goodies do not like to be made into Mummys before their time. If you’re in doubt, stick with the classic ‘Whaa Gwaan Me Big Friend!?’
If you’re a man aged 15-40 then you’re a Yute, Dads, or Bredren. If you’re older or highly respected you may also be Big Man, or a Boss or My Lawd (Lord).
Since Rastafar-I is a big part of Jamaican culture both Rasta and bal ‘ead (non-Rasta) Jamaicans will greet each other with terms like Yes King, Yes I, Hail Empress, Highly I, Blessed Love, and Greetings in the Name of the Most High. This is usually accompanied by a clasping of the hands, a hug, a lowering of the head, or a bow as a sign of respect.
Update Yu Chat
(updating your popular slang terms)
If you’ve visited Jamaica before you’re probably confident about your greetings. But Jamaican greetings evolve at the speed of dancehall, which is twice the speed of Usain Bolt.
Maybe you know about ‘booming fists’ (what Americans call ‘pounds’). We’re still doing that but now we’re also rubbing thumbs. Remember the Lion Paw (intertwining fingers?? Add the Wakandan arm cross.
How about ‘Yow’, ‘Yush’, and Oi instead of Hello? Now there’s Ooosh, UP!, Bung Bang and Seven. Just say it, we’ll know what to do.
You remember Dawdie, Speego, and Dawg as terms of endearment for men? Add Genna, Fry Yeye, and Chargie (yup, Drake got it from us.)
Location, Location, Location
(well ..location, location, location)
If you’re walking down the street and suddenly hear a very nasal ‘Halleuu’ you’ve either stumbled into the Uptown or a fancy feeling Jamaican on a phone call.
If you are breathing the rarified air of the Uptown remember it’s protocol to tell people how they’re feeling and then waft off like a cotton puff on a summer breeze: air kiss both cheeks, lean back and look them in the eye and declare ‘yu good right!’.
If it’s a fancy phone-caller then trust that the person on the other side is offering a doubled up greeting like ‘Hi, hello’ or ‘hello, good afternoon’.
If all else fails and you can’t decide on a greeting just bellow “Yu cyaan say ‘hi’ to people!?” (can’t you say hi!?). It doesn’t matter that you didn’t say ‘hi’ either, trust me nuh, just do it.
Walk good and be well met and whoever you encounter I hope yu spirit tek.
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