We look at mastering the art of hello in The Bogotá Post’s first Spanish language column
What’s one of the most useful things to learn in order to manoeuvre your Spanish interactions more smoothly? If I were to organise a route with a large flag saying START HERE, where would I begin? I guess we’d have to start with greetings. Botch the greeting, and you’ve gotten your whole exchange off to a pitiful, clumsy start (not that these things can’t be recovered); ace the greeting, and that confidence will carry you quite far.
When you read, you begin with ABC; when you sing, you begin with do re mi; and when you run into a friend in Colombia you start with Hola, ¿qué más? Well, that’s certainly one of the most common ways. Let’s break it down.
You start with Hola. Easy. You probably also know Oye or Oiga for “hey,” but this is used to draw someone’s attention to something (as in, “Hey, did I give you my new number?”), not as a greeting.
Then you’re more or less socially obligated to ask the person how they’re doing, usually by stringing a few of these phrases together. In a very unscientific order of usefulness in Colombia, here’s a list of how to ask people how goes it:
1. ¿Qué más?
Literal translation ‘What else?’ VERY Colombian and incredibly useful. Illogically, you absolutely can say this first.
2. ¿Cómo estás? ¿Cómo está?
How are you? The most neutral, universal, and “safe,” so good for exchanges with people you don’t know or to whom you have to show respect. Certainly whenever you have to shake someone’s hand.
3. ¿Cómo vas? ¿Cómo has estado?
How’s it going? How have you been?
4. ¿Cómo te va? ¿Cómo te ha ido?
How’s it going? How’s it been going?
5. ¿Cómo va todo? ¿Cómo va tu vida? ¿Cómo van las cosas?
How is everything? How are things?
6. ¿Qué haces? ¿Qué has hecho? ¿En qué andas?
What have you been up to?
7. ¿Qué cuentas? ¿Qué me cuentas?
How are you doing? What’s been going on?
8. ¿Qué tal?
What’s up? How’s it going?
9. ¿Qué hay de nuevo? ¿Qué hay? ¿Qué hay de tu vida?
What’s new? What’s happening?
10. ¿Cómo me le va?
Very polite, always hear this either from or directed to older people out of respect. This construction is called the ethical dative, and it basically expresses that I care about you so much that however you’re doing affects me and thus influences how I’m doing.
11. ¿Cómo estamos?
How are we today? Like in English, this can have patronizing, paternalistic overtones.
What you won’t hear in Colombia: ¿Qué pasa? ¿Qué pasó? ¿Qué onda?
All of the above essentially mean the same thing. Don’t get tripped up trying to translate them or come up with the perfect answer; just learn to let them slide out of your mouth fluidly. They’re all answered the same way: Bien. Todo bien. (If things are so-so, you can say Ahí vamos or Ahí, más o menos.) And then you return the volley.
– ¡Hola nena! ¿Qué más? ¿Cómo estás? ¿Qué has hecho? ¿Juiciosa?
-Hola. Bien, gracias a Dios. Juiciosa como siempre. ¿Y tú, qué? ¿Cómo vas?
Then they’ll talk for a bit, and when there’s a pause, a lull in the conversation, it’ll start again.
-Ah, bueno . . . ¿Y qué más? ¿Tu familia, qué?
In this mid-conversation example, you can see that ¿Qué más? isn’t really used to greet so much as it’s filler to help move the conversation along.
Of course, Buenos días, Buenas tardes, and Buenas noches are used depending on the time of day, but these are more formal greetings. As in many countries, Buenas is often used instead of these phrases, a sort of catch-all. (Yes, even in the morning; you don’t say Buenos.) Very typical when you enter shops, as greeting the shopkeeper is just common courtesy here.
But no column on Colombian greetings would be complete without the ever-present ¡Quiubo! This greeting is special enough to not include in the list above, and it comes from ¿Qué hubo? It’s usually followed by another greeting, and it’s very informal.
Quiubo mija, ¿cómo estás?
Quiubo parce, ¿bien o qué?
Once you’ve already greeted someone, you can say ¡Quiubo! each time you run into them afterward, say, at the office. That way, you don’t have to go through the whole merry-go-round of greetings over and over again. You can also say ¡Quiubo! when someone knocks on your door: a casual way of saying, “Who’s there? What is it?”
As you could easily use a different greeting every day and almost never repeat a salutation in an entire month, there’s no excuse for letting yourself fall into a greeting rut. And if you don’t know what to say next, just keep adding more greetings to buy yourself time!
Katie Jacoby is a Spanish-English translator and has been in Colombia for 2.5 years. Feel free to leave her a comment or ideas for future columns on her language website, vocabat.com.