When it comes to saying hello, Australians have a few typical greeting phrases and choice slang words.
Usually greeting someone in Australia is a casual, informal affair regardless of whether or not we know that person, whether we are close to them or not.
When I moved back to Australia about a decade ago, the typical Aussie ‘hellos’ confused me. When someone greeted me in Australian-speak, it always took a moment for me to realise that they were actually saying hi to me.
How’s it going? That’s one typical Australian way of saying hello. Traveling around Australia, I’ve heard this phrase pretty much everywhere: from city to rural areas, the states of Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and the nation’s capital Canberra. Some variations of this phrase include:
How you going? How are you going? How you doing? How are you doing? How’s it hanging? (this last one sometimes conjures up the image of a body part, and that’s probably why it’s not heard too often).
All of these are ways of asking how have you been. How are you. What have you been up to. How’s life treating you. In Australia, ‘How’s it going’ is a question Australians ask when catching up with someone, be it over coffee or bumping into a friend randomly on the streets. It’s also a phrase that we greet our co-workers with when we get to work, or when we are checking up on someone halfway through the day.
For the longest time I didn’t think ‘How’s it going’ or ‘How you going’ actually referred to one’s well-being. For the longest time I was focused and fixated on the word ‘going’ and wondered if the person asking the question literally meant where was I going. That is, I wondered if the person was asking if I was going to some place or asking how was I getting a certain place. A lot of the time we hear the phrases ‘going towards’, ‘going to’ or ‘going there’ each day. Naturally, when one uses ‘going’, it can be second nature to automatically associate it with moving in a certain geographical direction.
When I first moved back to Australia, whenever someone asked me ‘How’s it going’, I’d go, ‘Ummm’. I didn’t believe they were actually asking where I was going to. It seemed strange to ask someone right off bat where they are heading when they are sitting down, and when I was in fact sitting down.
Then there are Aussie greetings with the word ‘mate’ thrown in. ‘How’s it going mate?’ or ‘Hey mate’. ‘Mate’ has long had contested, conflicting connotations. As I’ve written in Why Do Australians Call Each Other ‘Mate’?, on one hand the word signifies devotion to nation, Australia’s convict history and blokey culture, some of these ideologies arguably outdated. On the other hand, the word also signifies egalitarianism and friendship – and these days a colloquial, gender-neutral word used to address someone in place of their name. So, ‘How’s it going mate’ can be thought of as a means of asking someone how they are on friendly terms or not-so-friendly terms depending on circumstances.
To be honest, I’ve never used ‘mate’ to greet someone. It’s not something I grew up hearing in my Chinese Australian household, and also not among my white Aussie classmates at school. But I don’t mind when others address me with that word.
‘G’day’ is also another Aussie greeting, or ‘Good day’ in full. Often in Australia you’ll hear, ‘G’day mate’ and ‘G’day, how’s it going?’ as well. Starting a conversation by saying ‘Good day’ to someone, it sounds like we’re wishing them a good day, referring to someone’s existence right here, right now. The origins of ‘G’day mate’ is relatively unknown. However, it has been suggested the saying has origins in seafaring and back in the day when shipmates called each other mates, and might also have origins in the UK where the phrase is also used.
‘G’day’ is probably the most well-known Aussie greeting around the world. Every year in the States, there’s G’day USA, the bilateral relations, public and economic diplomacy program between America and Australia – fronted by well-known Aussie creatives such as Hugh Jackman, Baz Luhrmann, John Travolta and Neil Perry. ‘G’day’ is spoken in a notable scene in the iconic Aussie film Crocodile Dundee. ‘G’day G’day’ is the name of a 1988 song about Australia by iconic Australian country singer Slim Dusty. ‘G’day’ has time and time again been incorporated into quite a few Australian tourism campaigns.
Consequently ‘G’day how’s it going mate’ is a phrase that is inherently part of Australia’s linguistic identity. While ‘G’day is a word that has become such mainstream marketable slang and outdated to some Australians today, it’s a hello with an old-fashioned charm that some of us – from a cultural majority or minority – will always appreciate. However, not everyone around the world actually understands ‘G’day’, especially when it’s spoken with the broad Aussie accent. As documented in his YouTube video, Aussie Kieran Murray travelled the world and greeted strangers with ‘G’day, how’s it going mate’ – and most do not understand him at all.
My Chinese-Malaysian relatives who speak mainly Cantonese reckon ‘G’day’ is comical and a joke: to them ‘G’day’ spoken with broad Aussie accent sounds like ‘Go die’. It’s not hard to believe: ‘Good-dayyy’ = ‘Gooo-dieee’; depending on how the words ‘die’ and ‘day’ are pronounced, they can sound pretty similar. So to my Chinese family and maybe others who aren’t familiar with the Aussie accent, meeting someone and right away telling them ‘G’day’ is like telling them to go away for no reason which can be hilarious or even upsetting. Needless to say, G’day’ is not a word I greet my family with. In fact, like the word ‘mate’, ‘G’day’ is just not a word that I use.
‘Howdy’ also crops up every now and then as a greeting in Australia. Rarely have I heard it in Australia, but I know others who’ve heard it now and again. ‘Howdy’ seems to be more of an American way of saying hello, a common greeting in the southwestern parts of the States and commonly heard on American TV.
‘You right?’ ‘You alright’? ‘Are you right?’ That’s what we often hear from the shopkeeper when we walk into a store in Australia or when someone is checking on us. This is a casual way of saying ‘Can I help you’ or asking if someone is okay in general or when someone looks hungover or not quite right, or when someone looks like they might need a hand. Generally each of these questions is both a hello and a question at the same time, sometimes asked out of concern, sometimes asked as a way to start a conversation.
When someone asks if I’m right, being the pessimist and realist that I am I often can’t help but wonder if there is something wrong with me. In other words, when someone asks if I’m alright my heart jumps a little and I wonder if I am in some sort of trouble or if something is amiss with me (for example like my pants dropped down in public and I have no idea). Also as an introvert with anxiety, a lot of the time any kind of attention towards me is nerve-wracking. That said, it’s always nice to be asked how you are, and I like it, I really do.
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Body language goes hand-in-hand with the expression of social etiquette. In Australia, when we meet each other there might be a handshake after a ‘G’day’ or ‘How’s it going’. Or a pat on the back. Maybe even a hug if we have a close relationship with each other. Eye contact is common too. Then again, how each of us follow up a verbal hello also depends on our cultural background and individual personalities.
Whether we know it or not, we greet each other all the time, all throughout day and night. We greet each other when we bump into each other, when we want to get the attention of someone or are checking up on each other. In other words, we say hi and touch base with each other because we have to, and because we want to. A study on intergroup contact and pluralistic ignorance explored how some of us especially outgroups feel others lack interest in ourselves. Psychologist Sam Sommers builds on this finding, suggesting there’s a kind of power in saying hello: greeting someone and asking them how they are can leave a lasting impression. As operatic tenor Robert Breault says on our attitude when we say hello and mean it:
‘Charisma is not just saying hello. It’s dropping what you’re doing to say hello.’
The Aussie ways of saying hello are open-ended greetings, and one can respond however they like (which is another topic altogether). However saying hi anywhere can come across as rather intrusive especially if it’s coming from a complete stranger and we’re the kind who likes to keep to ourselves – and how one articulates hello might make us feel comfortable or uncomfortable. Research shows intonation is an indicator of trustworthiness and ‘hellos’ that start and finish high in pitch tend to be more trustworthy. In addition, a study by Australian National University found those who spoke with the Australian accent and spoke with Australian lingo – regardless of their cultural background – were perceived to be much more likable than those who did not.
Most days I go ‘Hey’ when I see someone I know or when I want to get someone’s attention, keeping my ‘hellos’ short and simple. If they look up and say hi back, I usually launch right into what I want to say. Or when there’s silence, I throw in a ‘How ya doin’. And if there still is awkward silence after this, I assume that person doesn’t want to talk to me and I move along. And wonder why they don’t want a chat.
Hello. Sometimes we welcome the word, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it leaves us utterly confused.
Have you ever said hello to an Australian?