One of my favorite things here in Hungary (and one of my favorite things about learning other languages, in general) is the remaining traces of formality of days gone by. As I was leaving my Magyaróra (literally “Hungarian hour”, meaning my language lesson) a few days ago, the security guard called out to me and my instructor, “Kezüket csókolom, hölgyeim!” This means “I kiss your hands, my ladies!”
This isn’t a rare occurrence – many days when I’m at the market, the (male) grocers will say “Csókolom!” (which is just “I kiss!”) as a replacement for hello, goodbye, or thank you. The same for taxi drivers and men that hold the doors open for me. It’s said to women of every age, from the elderly to the toddlers, and is always said as a gesture of respect. I’ve never heard it used in a wolf-whistle type of way (although that could simply mean I’m not wolf-whistling material!)
This greeting is ALWAYS used only for women, though. A fellow expat told me that when she first arrived, she hadn’t taken language lessons yet and was mostly repeating things people said to her. So, if they said “Jó napot!” (good day), she repeated it back; the same for hello, “szia” (also hello), and “szervusz” (a very casual hello). One day, an elderly gentleman called out to her “Csókolom!” and, not knowing what it meant, she simply repeated it. He was horrified and left in a huff. Apparently men don’t like hand kisses. I’ve been told that a young woman can say it to an elderly woman as a sign of respect as well, but I haven’t tried this yet. Mostly because it’s dangerous to point out to a woman that she qualifies as “elderly”.
Aside from all of the kissing, there’s a strict protocol when it comes to general greetings. One time, I was in the dog park and happened to say “Szia!” (hello) to a man who had greeted me with “Jó napot kívánok” (I wish you a good day). A boy came up to me and said, in flawless English, “Excuse me, but I think you’re just learning Hungarian, yes?” When I confirmed, he said, “You really should learn to properly address people. That man gave you a formal greeting, and he is older than you, so you should say the same to him out of respect.” Charmed, I asked him how old he was (10) and what I should say to him. He said, “You can say anything to me, you’re the adult so you’re my boss.” That’s a well-trained kiddo, right there.
At my lesson a few days later, I asked my instructor to go over the rules with me, and she basically confirmed his guidelines. Say a formal greeting to anyone older than you, and wait for them to give an informal greeting in response. If they do, it probably means you can be informal in your next interaction, but if not, remain formal. You can be informal from the beginning with people your own age, or people younger than you.
Another thing that I’ve found interesting is that it’s considered rude to enter any public space without saying both hello and goodbye. At the dog park, for example, I can’t really communicate with most of the other people in the park, because they either speak only Hungarian or, if they know a second language, German. Still, they make a point to say “Szia!” when I enter and “Viszlát!” when I leave. When we first moved here, I didn’t respond, worrying that I would pronounce something wrong and sound like an idiot. Most people in the park avoided me. However, after a few visits, I started proactively greeting the others when I arrived and saying goodbye when I left, and they instantly warmed up to me. The working gentlemen have said it’s the same in elevators – at the office, everyone says hello and goodbye on the elevator, even if they ride in complete silence the rest of the way. In many shops, the manager or cashier will greet you, and if you don’t respond, you’ll likely get a store security guard trailing you. Not saying hello means you’ve been profiled as a shady tourist who’s likely to shove something in your purse.
One other thing my instructor told me, which surprised me, was that the phrase “good night” (jó éjszakát) is considered an “intimate” thing to say, and that it should be reserved for close friends and relatives. “Good evening” (jó estét) can be used for everyone. Good thing I only said “good night” about twenty times at the dog park to other puppy owners before finding this out. 😉
These little differences are so fascinating to me – I’m sure that as the years go on, formality will trail away, just like it has in the US. But for now, I love hearing the distinct greetings.
Jó éjszakát, kedves barátaim!