Nuances of Russian Greeting 101 or how not to be a Человек с приветом

One of the first questions guests have when planning to go to Russia is how to say “Hello”.  Unhappily, the answer is “Здравствуйте” (pronounced… hmmm, something like Zdravst-voo-tye).  The bold guest will make several brave attempts at popular pronunciation before asking the local, “Isn’t there another way to say it?”.  The local in question will then invariably mention that you can say “Привет” (Pronounced “pree-vyet”, and make it only two syllables, please), which means “Hi”, but not “Hello”.  Our intrepid guest will be happily shocked by this turn of events because he (or she) will immediately recognize that it is easier to say “Pree-vyet” (even if it is only two syllables) than to say “Hello” in Russian which, for some reason, is a sound akin to a controlled sneeze.
Our unsuspecting language teacher will then feel inclined, without exception, to give a frantic lesson on proper use of “Привет”.  They will say that “Привет” should only be used:
1) With people that you know really well, and since you just walked through passport control at Shermyetevo, that is nobody.
2) Or small children.  Which you better have a good reason for walking around Russia starting greeting random children left and right.
3) Or if you are wearing Wranglers, a wrinkly t-shirt, a baseball cap with styrofoamish material in the front and netlike material in the back, white socks, and white sneakers, and are going to only be in a touristy area of the Russian Federation (Arbat street or, uh, Arbat street, or oh yeah, the Hermitage, which incidentally is sadly not the residence of a recluse), just don’t worry about it, everyone will understand and take no offense at you greeting them so casually as long as you take no offense at their price gouging for a stacking doll featuring Lenin or, uh, Lennon.
“Привет” means “hi”.  In my native nation of the United States of America, I pretty much feel comfortable saying “Hi” to just about anyone.  However, “Hi” in Russian is more informal.  It’s more like “S’going down, rockdawg?” or “Whassup, dogmeat?”, which are not greetings you would use while conversing with Heads of State, bishops, or applying for a bank loan.  Unless, of course, you are applying for a loan and you are Snoop Dogg.
Speaking of bishops.  There is a bishop here in Moscow who I see from time to time.  Well, he started saying “Привет” to me.  I interpreted this to mean that the bishop wanted a less formal relationship.  I would always reply with a “Здравствуйте”, but then I turned the situation over in my mind a few times and decided that I should also be friendly.  Well, I recently changed the tires on my car from winter (studded) tires to summer (non-studded) tires.  I was carrying two of my winter (studded) tires to storage, which is a bit of a clumsy affair.  As I awkwardly rounded a corner carrying these two tires, I ran into the bishop and said “Привет!”.  Well, the bishop kind of broke eye contact and said “Здравствуйте”.  Then I saw my mistake.  He had some kind of assistant with him and it wasn’t proper for me to suggest that we were so familiar in another person’s presence.  If only I could see around corners I would have saved us all a lot of embarrassment.
Of course, I’m totally guessing how everyone felt in that situation.  Coming right out and asking would have somehow compounded the awkwardness.
I’ve found when I’m unsure how to greet I can always stick with a “Good Morning”, “Good Day”, or “Good Evening”, which is nice for both friends and enemies.  I mean friends of formal relationship.  However, I’ve found some good Russian friends to be somewhat anal retentive about which parts of the day constitute morning, noon, or evening.  I even found that if some saw my “good morning” to be too late in the day, they understood that I was in general a lazy person who tarries too long in the sack during the morning hours, nevermind the fact that due to my four small children I get up earlier than just about anyone I know in Russia.
Most of these problems of formal and non-formal and times of day are learned quickly enough.  However, the main disease of all Americans in learning Russian is a complete inability to control themselves from over greeting.  You see, and this is the Main Unappealable Law of Russian Greeting:  Never Greet One Person More Than Once In One Day.  There is only one gray area in this law.  It seems that if you spoke by telephone and there was a greeting then it it is okay to greet again in that same day when meeting in person.  
Ah, but we Americans can’t help ourselves now, can we?  “Hello!”, “Hi!”, “Привет!”, “Hey!”,  “How’re ya doin’?” (without having a care in the world about the possible answer), “”Sup?”, “Mornin’!”, “Top of the Day to you, fine sir!”.  It goes on and on.  Every time we see someone we want to greet them.  We want to smile at them.  Indeed, we deeply desire to establish a point of international solidarity.
To all of this nonsense there is only one Russian response, “Mы уже с Вами здоровались.”  In English, that means something like, “Could you please wipe that perpetual smirk off your face?  Have you even looked outside at the weather today?  There is no point to greeting more than once a day, and you look like a crazy person tenaciously torturing me with your “Привет!” every five minutes, so please give me a break in your language learning experience because you’re scaring me into thinking that you are a “Человек с приветом”. 
What about you?  Are you an American in Russia who can’t seem to stop greeting everyone constantly?  Are you a Russian who can’t understand why Americans don’t take off their gloves to shake hands?  Any other awkward greeting stories?  What is the solution to this international catastrophe?  Be sure to comment below.
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8 thoughts on “Nuances of Russian Greeting 101 or how not to be a Человек с приветом

  1. Thanks for the overview on Russian greetings. Your explanation is better (and more memorable) than any I've seen in a text book! I teach ESL now, and one of my favorite stories about greetings is from one of my current students from China. He's written about how confusing the American greeting “What's up” was when he first came here. It took some trial and error to learn that this expression just meant hello and wasn't a literal question. 🙂

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  2. Hi Amy, Glad you found my explanation to be memorable. As far as explaining “What's up?”, I've always found it to be helpful to explain that it's the same as asking “What's going down?”. That usually clears up any confusion.

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  3. It is hard not to say “Привет” a second time, even when I know I shouldn't. However, I think the “Mы уже с Вами здоровались” response is a bit severe in most cases. I say Americans can't be held liable for their redundant greetings until this rule is written down somewhere… Oh, wait… It just was.

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  4. My boss is an American guy but he never greets us more than once a day. Whcih doesnt mean that he doesnt really put his legs on the table (I thought its a Hollywood story) and always say “sorry” when accidentaly meeting someone in the corridor or near the door. He couldnt get the rid of these even after 5 years or something in Moscow. And also I admire Americans for their genetic ability to speak and smile endlessly 🙂

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  5. Funny post for me (I am Russian), I now realize how often my Americans collegues say “hello” to me)) that is really true!

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  6. I guess, I am a Russian with a somewhat American attitude to saying “hi”) I also tend to have an urge to greet people more that once a day – and know a lot of people in Russia with the same habit. But since it is not really that common in Russia we have reached a compromise by nodding or smiling at the person instead of helloing him several times a day. A nod or a half-nod combined with a smile is much more appropriate in such situations: you can nod away freely, dauntlessly and resolutely – and as many times a day as you want) A nod or half-nod/half-smile also means that while you fully aknowledge the fact of a previous meeting in the course of a day, you are still glad or at least ok to run into that same person again. It's pretty much like “'sup?” and pretty convenient too)

    By the way, an ever so slightly more polite way to say is “мы уже сегодня виделись” or “мы ЖЕ уже сегодня виделись”. The second variant is a bit tricky: you should manage saying it friendly enough – that way the worst thing the phrase might imply is a little absent-mindedness of the person you are responding to, which also takes the accusation of his being a slightly insane smug overhelloer off the table 🙂

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