The Colombian Compulsion to Say Hi

I only started to really get to know Colombians in Cali, where I stayed for two months. When you are traveling from place to place, it’s hard to get to know anyone if you only say for three or five days. In Cali, I also met my new Belgian friend Griet, whom I believe will be a friend for life. Griet and I noticed something very peculiar and sweet in our new Colombian friends: they were often compelled to call to say hi, to “saludar.” “Saludar” is a verb that means to say hello, how are you doing? And that would be it. The phone call would be over in a minute or two. There was no particular plan to make, no question to answer. It was just a call to say hi. And often enough, to say, I’ll call you later.

Griet and I would look at each other in amazement when the call is over. And laugh, and ask, why is this person going to call again tonight so we can say hi again? In our worlds, if you make a short phone call, it’s to make a plan, not just to say hello. We call less frequently, but the conversations are longer. In Colombia, shorter phone conversations are the rule. (Minutes are scandalously expensive. A twenty minute conversation could easily cost seven dollars.) And saludando is a way of life.

Why do Colombians saludar so much? Were these just a few phone-happy, love-to-say-hi people that we met? I don’t think so. Colombians have a desire to check in, to stay close. Our friend Mauricio asked Griet how often she called her family and she said once a week. He was horrified. He calls his family daily to “saludar.” I call my family and friends when the impulse strikes, and I have to admit weeks may pass between calls, if not more than a month. When we talk, it’s usually at least for ten minutes and often for half an hour. (Calls on Skype are cheap.)

In the daily rhythym of life it doesn’t occur to me to call to saludar (just to say hi, how are you?) the way that Colombians do. I’m more accustomed now to communicating my state and impersonally to my 500 family and friends on Facebook! Or I suppose to “chatting” online to say hi. And in the U.S., I got used to texting rather than calling. Griet defended herself by saying that she is busy and can’t call everyone every day to say hi. It’s true, where would it end? I would easily spend an hour every day calling my family and friends, but I suppose if I were more in the rhythym of daily contact, I would rotate people. As I write this, I notice how much efficiency and efficacy factors into my thinking about communication. I don’t pick up my cell phone and press someone’s number to say hi for one minute!

The height of saludar absurdity came twice for me. Once was at the beginning of getting to know William, my sweetheart in Cali. He called me to establish contact. Now we have each other’s phone numbers, he said. “Ummm, OK.” That was basically my response. Thanks for calling to establish that we have each other’s phone numbers. I hung up feeling bewildered, though when I asked him about it a month later he smiled and explained that that was just his strategy. He would hover and see if I had anything to say to him.

The second was after my very short foray into kitesurfing at Lago Calima, a manmade lake near Cali. I went only for one day and decided the water was too cold to learn. My teacher was really nice, and I didn’t want him to think that I was jumping ship because of him, so when I told him I was aborting my lessons, I assured him I thought he was a great teacher

A day after I returned to Cali, he called to saludar me. Why are you calling to saludar me, I wanted to ask. I would never have thought to pick up the phone to call a student whom I probably was never going to see again just to say hi. There was nothing romantic between us, and we were never going to see each other again. But this is the Colombian compulsion to say hi.

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