Have you eaten?

Every country has its own culture, social mannerisms; etiquette and habits.

In Singapore it is common to be greeted with “Have you eaten?” or “Where are you going?” instead of “Good Morning / Afternoon / Evening” or “How are you?”

Of course, it was 3 days before I remembered this… until then I took the question literally, while finding it quite odd 🙂 No doubt they found my literal answer odd 🙂 Angmoh!

It all stems from Singapore’s early days, before they were established as a nation, and probably originated in China. Most people were poor and food was scarce, so if you met a friend in the street you would ask him if he had eaten yet. If he answered no, it was usually because he could not afford to buy food, so you would invite him back to your house to share what little you had. On another occasion they might reciprocate the gesture and in this way everyone shared their food with everyone else. Of course, nowadays it has become a rhetorical question, more of a greeting than a genuine inquiry into one’s welfare.

Food in Singapore is a national obsession. Everyone eats all the time. Every housing block has a food court with 20 or more stalls serving delicious Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai or Indonesian food. Many food courts are open 24 hours, and outside of the housing blocks these eateries are sometimes known as hawker centers. All major hotels have an international buffet and the streets beside the Singapore River are lined with restaurants. Eating out is so relatively inexpensive that it doesn’t make sense to cook at home. Just go down to the food court and enjoy a big plate of steaming hot noodles with seafood and a rich gravy for a couple of bucks.

Recognising that “Have you eaten?” is a greeting, part of phatic communication, rather than a request for detailed information or an actual invitation to dine, is part of communicative competence – our ability to connect with others on the basis of shared cultural norms and familiarity with social context and conventions. The same goes for the English “How are you?” being understood as a greeting and not a question about the details of one’s health. Many Singaporeans use the greeting “How are you?” when dealing with Westerners, but obviously not all. No doubt, the odd responses they received to “Have you eaten?” provided an incentive to use a different greeting 🙂

So, back to “Have you eaten?” The answer is “Yes”, without discussing what, if anything, was eaten. In case you’re wondering, my answer was “No”, which no doubt was even more odd given the national obsession with food. And I didn’t expect them to feed me.

Another common greeting “Are you busy?” elicits the response “Very”, a much respected quality in Singaporean culture. The answer to “How’s business?” is “Moderate” since it’s considered rude to talk about success.

The one thing you hear constantly is “Lah”. Singaporeans love to add this to the end of every other sentence. It’s as if this one meaningless word gives the Singlish speaker an extra space that is absent in English to further refine, amplify or otherwise adjust the tone of the entire sentence preceding it. I have noticed that Singaporeans who speak English, as opposed to Singlish, do not use lah.

Lah is used to change the tone of a sentence, and doesn’t have a meaning itself. If you listen closely to the habits of a Singlish speaker, you might be able to tell what tone is being conveyed, and how lah helps. There are so many different ways to use it that it’s difficult to fully explain how it works, but here are some examples:

Can lah. (That’s fine, but with a suggestion that it’s just barely so.)
No lah! (No, and you’re clearly wrong to suggest otherwise.)
Don’t like that lah. (Don’t be like that, but in a slightly placating tone.)

Enough lah! 🙂 Time to go out and face the heat and the humidity 😦

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