Whether you're traveling to an Arab country or just want to greet an Arab friend in their native language, learning how to greet people is a good way to get started with the Arab language and culture. The most common Arabic greeting is "as-salaam 'alaykum" which means "peace be upon you." Although technically a Muslim greeting, it is used throughout the Arab world. You can also say "ahlan", which simply means "hello." However, just like any other language, there are other ways to greet people in Arabic, depending on the context and how well you know them.
Method 1 of 2: Say "Hello" in Arabic
Step 1. Use “as-salaam 'alaykum” as the default greeting
The greeting "as-salaam 'alaykum" literally means "peace be upon you" and is a traditional greeting among Muslims. Since most of the Arabs are Muslims, it is also the most common greeting in Arabic.
- The response to this greeting is "wa 'alaykum as-salaam", which essentially means "and also with you."
- If you are in an Arab country, this is a good default greeting whether you know the religious beliefs of the person you are greeting or not. However, outside of Arab countries, it is advisable to use a different greeting if you know that the person you are greeting is not Muslim.
Step 2. Change to “ahlan” if you are not comfortable with religious greetings
"Ahlan" is the basic way of saying "hello" in Arabic and is appropriate for all occasions. If you are not Muslim or do not feel comfortable doing a Muslim greeting, you can use this option instead.
- "Ahlan wa sahlan" is the more formal version of "ahlan". Use it with older people or in a position of authority.
- The answer to “ahlan” is “ahlan bik” (if you are a man) or “ahlan biki” (if you are a woman). If someone says "ahlan" to you first, remember to modify your answer depending on whether it is male or female.
You could also hear Arabs use greetings in English. However, these are considered relatively casual or familiar. Avoid them unless you know the person well or used an English greeting with you first.
Step 3. Use “marhaba” to welcome someone
This word literally means "welcome" and is usually used when you welcome someone into your home or the place where you are staying. You can also use it to invite someone to sit with you. It is also used simply as a more casual “hello”.
For example, if you are sitting in a cafeteria and a friend walks by and says "ahlan", you could respond with "marhaba", to indicate that he can come over and sit down with you to chat
Step 4. Alter your greeting based on the time of day
There are also time-specific Arabic greetings that you can use in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Although these are not that common, you can use them if you want. They are considered relatively formal, so they are appropriate no matter who you greet.
- In the morning, say "sabaahul khayr" (good morning).
- In the afternoon, say "masaa al-khayr" (good afternoon).
- In the evening, say "masaa al-khayr" (good night).
however, the phrase "tusbih alaa khayr" (good night) is usually used as a form of "goodbye" at the end of a night; not as a greeting.
Step 5. Ask how the other person is doing
As with any other language, it is common to ask about someone's well-being immediately after greeting them. In Arabic, the basic question varies depending on whether you are talking to a man or a woman.
- If you talk to a man, ask "kayfa haalak?" He will probably respond with "ana bekhair, shukran!" (which essentially means "I'm fine, thank you!").
- If you are going to talk to a woman, ask "kayfa haalik?" The answer is usually the same as for a man.
- If the other person asks how you are first, reply "ana bekhair, shukran!" and then continue with "wa ant?" (if the person is a man) or "wa anti?" (if the person is a woman). These phrases essentially mean "And you?"
Step 6. Continue the conversation if you feel comfortable
If you know very little Arabic, at this point it might be advisable to say: "Hal tatahadath lughat 'ukhraa bijanib alearabia?" ("Do you speak a language other than Arabic?"). However, if you've been studying and feel like you can handle basic conversation, you could continue to ask the person by name or where they are from.
- If you and the person you greeted have no other language in common and you want to continue speaking Arabic, you could indicate that you only know a little Arabic. Say “na'am, qaliilan” to indicate that you only speak a little Arabic.
- If you don't understand what the person is saying, you could say "laa afham" (I don't understand).
Method 2 of 2: Observe Arab Customs and Traditions
Step 1. Use polite words and phrases to show respect
In any language, good behavior shows respect. Using polite words and phrases in Arabic, even if you don't know other words in the language, communicates that you respect Arabic culture. Some words to learn include:
- "Al-ma'dirah": permission (if you are asking someone to move)
- "Aasif": sorry
- "Miin faadliikaa": please
- "Shukran": thank you
- "Al'afw": response to "thank you"
Step 2. Avoid touching when greeting someone of the opposite sex
Traditionally, men and women do not touch each other at all when greeting each other, unless they are close family members. Some women are willing to shake hands with men, particularly in more formal settings. However, if you are a man, you should let the woman take the lead.
- Stand away from a woman when greeting her. If she is willing to shake your hand, she will extend it to you. Don't reach out automatically first.
- If she holds her hands or places her right hand on her heart, it is a sign that she is not willing to shake your hand, but she is delighted to meet you.
Step 3. Shake hands when greeting someone of the same sex formally
When greeting someone of the same sex in a formal context, such as a professional or school setting, shaking hands is common. It's still a good idea to let the other person take the lead and offer their hand first.
Always shake hands with the right hand, never with the left. The left hand is considered impure in Arab culture
Step 4. Place your right hand on your heart to greet someone in a friendly way
Placing your right hand on your heart indicates that even if you are not going to touch the other person, you are still quite delighted to meet them. If you have Arab friends of the opposite sex, this is an appropriate way to greet them.
Since men and women who are not related normally do not touch when greeting each other, this gesture is a way to indicate your affection towards the person you are greeting without hugging or kissing them
Step 5. With people you know well, you can touch noses or kiss on the cheeks
In Arab culture, touching noses is not considered a particularly intimate gesture and is frequently performed between two men, as well as between two women. Another popular gesture in some areas is giving 3 kisses to the other person's right cheek.
These gestures are usually never appropriate with someone of the opposite sex unless they are related and very close. Still, many Arabs would not consider such a greeting appropriate in public
women (but not men) also hug occasionally when greeting each other. Hugs are reserved for family members or close friends whom you know well.
Step 6. Greet an old man with a kiss on the forehead
The elderly are highly respected in Arab culture. A kiss on the forehead honors them and shows them respect. Reserve this gesture for elders whom you know well or who are related to someone you know well.