Creating Greetings - The Art of World Building
Jun 012020
The Words

Analogues are useful when inventing greetings and farewells, but first, a few observations.

  • There’s often a word that means “hello” and a more casual version like “hi.”
  • We can wish pleasant times on them, such “Good morning” and “Live long and prosper.”
  • We often inquire about their well-being, such as “How are you?” This can be rhetorical.
  • We can state how happy we are to see or meet them, such as “Pleased to meet you.”
  • We can use a title, like “sir,” “Lord Kier,” “Mr. Smith,” or “Grand Master of the Seven Realms.”
  • We can introduce ourselves first, last, or in between (when additional people are there)
  • Using a given name is less formal than the surname

All we need do is combine these ideas while inventing variations that make sense for the context, which can be social, about station/rank, or both. Our cultural vision may have less impact on our decision because most greetings have certain values in common, those being respect, well-wishing, and a show good and peaceful intentions. If an individual doesn’t want to show those things, they don’t make the greeting or include every part of it.

Some ideas are a bit religious, like “many blessings” or “may the Lord bless you.” Then there are military ideas like, “May your sword never break,” “May your bowstring never snap,” and “May your arrows fly true.” Just think of a peril that might befall a profession and we can invent an expression. Or we can avoid these slightly negative sounding ones for something more upbeat: “may your staff always shine,” or “may your blade always gleam.” A scout might be simply told, “many sightings.”

Physical Gestures

In addition to (or in place of) words, both greetings and farewells can include gestures that may be optional, required, or at least expected. We should decide on this along with the gesture itself. That way, if something is required but our character doesn’t do it, this is a larger offense. If it’s only expected, it’s a smaller offense. If it’s optional, we pay little attention, and if it’s highly unusual, we notice it being done and perhaps wonder why, though being offended isn’t common.

There are different analogues we can leverage from both real Earth cultures and ones that other storytellers have imagined, but first, remember that touching others can spread germs. In a less technological society, like those in fantasy, people may be (and likely are) unaware of this. A prevalence for gestures that spread germs might exist unbeknownst to them, so we maybe shouldn’t have them avoid it as if they know something they don’t. In other words, don’t project our knowledge of this onto them and have them prefer other greetings because of it.

Beings from different planets have different germs and immunities, which naturally arises more in SF. It’s reality, but storytellers often overlook this because acknowledging it could place a substantial restriction on character behaviors and plot developments. This is a personal call each creator must make. Just as European diseases infected Native Americans, killing many, planet-hopping characters would do the same. Those big SF movies where aliens need incredible weapons to wipe us out may miss the mark in that they may only need to drop even a mild pathogen (or several) here and come back later when most of us are dead; the exception would be when they can’t wait for that.

The Handshake

The handshake done on Earth in modern times is so common that we often want something else on our fictional setting, with good reason. This gesture is too much like here. Variations already exist and we can invent our own or leverage these, which is recommended for speed of world building. For all of them, we want ease of depiction; no one wants even two sentences describing it.

Some easy variants are:

  • Forearm, bicep, or shoulder clasp
  • Interlacing fingers
  • Fist bump
  • Two hands

The details of handshakes vary by country on Earth. They are typically done barehanded, meaning failure to remove a glove could be seen as disrespect. In some countries, only the same gender shake hands, or sometimes one gender is expected to be greeted first this way. A religion like Islam discourages gender-mixing. Children can be included or excluded. Some prefer a weak grip, others a strong. While some use right hands, they simultaneously use the left to grasp the other’s right hand by the elbow. Sometimes a senior person is expected to initiate the gesture. One country considers it rude to have the left hand in a pocket during a greeting. While most handshakes are brief, some cultures expect people to hold hands for several seconds after the initial shake. In another country, that might be considered odd. There’s a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding for foreigners. There are also combination motions that must be known in advance to perform. They’re usually done by those belonging to a specialized group, such as athletes, musicians, wizards, or organization, such as a secret society.

Speculation about the origins of handshakes is that soldiers did this to show they didn’t hold a weapon, which could also have been a dagger hidden up one’s sleeve. Refusal to shake hands could be a bad sign. We may find this useful in a scene.

The Kiss

As a greeting or farewell, a kiss on the lips would be too intimate for most cultures except among lovers or family, but it’s an option, one that shows great comfort with physicality. It’s easy to imagine other cultures viewing this as a sign of promiscuity or lasciviousness. It’s also far more likely to spread germs. A kiss on the cheek is tamer and can either involve lips touching the skin or a cheek-to-cheek gesture with a kissing motion (or sound) from the lips, as if imitating. Sometimes a single kiss is done, but we’ve all seen each cheek getting the treatment. A kiss on the forehead is another option but can suggest patronization because adults sometimes do this to children, but maybe they don’t in our world. We have leeway to invent the interpretations, too. Finally, there is the kissing of the hand, which has been presented for the purpose. This has often been done to women or those of higher station.

The Bow

The bow seems more formal and may be appropriate in a culture where shows of respect are valued. It isn’t just the important people who may need this deference, but the whole population. The degree of bow is commensurate with the level of respect shown; while it might be customary to kneel before one’s king, if one is truly humble, prostration might feel appropriate. That might seem excessive to others. Even when one remains upright, there’s still a degree of bow, such as a slight bend or much more. What is appropriate might depend not just upon the relative social standing of those present, but upon the occasion, as something more serious and formal requires a deeper bow. In some cultures, people are exact about it and bowing too much is just as bad as bowing too little. We can decide for ourselves how touchy our peoples are.

A mere head nod would be the smallest gesture, followed by kneeling (one knee is less formal than both) and finally prostration (lying full upon the ground). These are levels of submission, which is why the more severe versions appear in religions. One version of bowing on Earth is Namaste, where we would place our palms together before our chest, bow slightly from the head, and say “Namaste.”

The Salute

A salute is typically reserved for the military and can be any number of fingers, though it’s typically all or the index and middle finger in a two-finger salute, with the other fingers bent and the thumb touching them. This can cause problems and has done so on Earth, as the Polish do the two-finger variety, like the Cub Scouts (children), and this led U.S. troops to assume the Polish were being disrespectful, as if implying they were kids. The result was Polish troops being arrested until the misunderstanding was cleared up.

In some places, a salute is only when a hat is worn. Others only allow it indoors when formally reporting to a superior officer. If enemy snipers are known to be nearby, no saluting happens (to avoid identifying an officer, who becomes a target). The palm can face downward as in the U.S. or toward the one being saluted. The downward version resulted from lower level troops working on tasks that dirtied their hands, and presenting the dirty palm to a superior during a salute wasn’t considered polite. A closed fist can also be used, and the arm can be extended forward (instead of bent to bring the hand to the forehead).

The origins of saluting are suggested to be from knights raising their visor to identify themselves, which was partly a show that they weren’t afraid of their foe, either. This can easily be used in the context of a knight who refuses to raise a visor and is taunted as a coward. In SF, salutes can be done with rifles. A salute can also be done with the sword, with enough variations in gesture that we can invent what we like. Pointing the tip at the ground is a sign of submission.


Sometimes we only nod at another person in passing, raise eyebrows, or just smile. We might say the briefest version of a greeting, such as “Hi.” We may give a small hand gesture, like a wave, but without raising our arm. What all of these have in common is not so much a greeting as an acknowledgement that we saw the other person and we aren’t pretending we didn’t. This is more important when we know them.

The military salute manifested in the tipping of one’s hat, by civilians, toward others as a greeting and gesture of respect. Sometimes the hat is merely touched, while other times it is removed, particularly indoors. Even today, some still consider it wrong to leave a hat on inside. After some gestures, like a handshake, the hand is placed on our own heart, though secondary motions are less common on Earth.

We can borrow ideas from animals, as this might feel more appropriate for beast-like species, such as trolls, ogres, and dragons, all of whom might use sniffing like dogs. A winged humanoid species might stretch and/or shake wings. Maybe subtle ways of fanning those feathers mean something, like annoyance, impatience, or happiness. Folding them in might be a blow-off. Wrapping them in front of oneself might be seen as evasive or a sign of being uncomfortable; maybe they’re just cold and this can be misinterpreted.

A species with a tail might raise it in a lazy swing, or crack it like a whip, making an actual sound. Some of this can be considered friendly or hostile. An Earth cat raises the tail in greeting, or slaps it on the floor when annoyed, and casually wags it when relaxed. Then there’s the fluffy appearance when startled, though that requires fur. Cats can extend their claws at will, so maybe we have a species that does the same, even giving a friendly scratch or bite. A dragon might puff some smoke out, but a little fire is an offense.

A society where everyone has a bladed-weapon at all times might gesture with it, whether sheathed or not. Maybe the gesture is just to unsheathe it by an inch and put it back, and doing more so is considered a sign of aggression. “He bared his blade!” an outraged character might shout, drawing his.

In worlds with magic or technologies we don’t have, wizards might make their staff give a pulse of light in greeting. A gun that has lights, whether a laser sight or just a flashlight, could be used for the same, especially if something like Morse Code signals are used on the field and have become a way to recognize allies. Maybe people position the staff or rifle a certain way almost like how a hat is tipped or a head is bowed. Since the powerful end of a staff is the top (usually), maybe it’s considered rude for a wizard to tip the top toward someone they’re greeting, but sliding the bottom forward can be seen as submission just as kneeling might be. Use your imagination.


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