"Aloha." "Hola." "Shalom."
These are ways to say "hello" in Hawaiian, Spanish and Hebrew, respectively. But just because you can say something doesn't mean it's always appropriate.
On the surface, simple greetings and phrases from other races and cultures may seem fine to sprinkle into our vernacular. Inclusive even.
But did you know that "aloha" doesn't just mean hello or goodbye? "It's a greeting or a farewell, but the meaning is deeper," says Maile Arvin, the director of Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Utah. "One of my Hawaiian language teachers taught it to me as 'Aloha means recognizing yourself in everyone and everything you meet.'"
If you're not Hawaiian and you say it, it could come off as mockery. And that's just one word to think about.
The use of certain words requires education, knowledge and the foresight to understand when they should – or shouldn't – come out of your mouth.
'We live in a multilingual world'
Of course, not all uses of language outside someone's culture are problematic.
"We live in a multilingual world where we're always influencing one another's language practices hand where we might come into contact with a variety of terms or language practices that we have not grown up in," says Nikki Lane, cultural and linguistic Anthropologist.
Intention matters most. Dropping "hola" or "shalom" to someone you know who speaks Spanish or Hebrew, for example, isn't something to worry about. Actively don a fake, exaggerated accent and say those words? Therein lies the problem.
Like saying "ni hao" to someone Asian American who isn't Chinese; this could be both othering and a microaggression.
"What we need is a critical consciousness in our public around language," says Jeffrey McCune, director of the Frederick Douglass Institute of African & African-American Studies at the University of Rochester. "Language is too critical to our culture, that we can't just casually use language in ways that might offend and/or even harm, do harm to certain groups of people."
It's the larger cultural considerations around the use of these words that matter most.
"I don't think the intention is necessarily to be offensive, or anything, but for Native Hawaiian people, Hawaiian language was banned in schools, after the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown," Arvin says. Considering how difficult it has been to keep the language alive, "to see someone using it without respect is really difficult for that reason."
Everyone needs context before speaking another culture's language besides their own. "We have a responsibility to be somewhat judicious with our language, and to have care for what we do with language," McCune says.
Think before you speak
These action items will help keep your language in check.
Make an effort to befriend people from other cultures. Step outside your comfort zone and "talk to people who do not share our values or our experiences," says Sunnie Rucker-Chang, associate professor at the Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies at The Ohio State University. You'll likely get a better feel for what's appropriate this way.
Ask yourself why you are saying the term. Are you using the term because you want to say something besides "hello" or "hey?" Consider the cultural implications before you do. McCune says: "Is it to the benefit of laughter and sarcasm and satire? Or is it a genuine interest in being a part of a cultural community that recognizes the historical meaning and historical significance of various terms?"
Remember the weight of words. "Language is really about power," says Rucker-Chang. "And I think that the person who is using these terms needs to be more aware of the origins of them."
Avoid terms you don't know about. "Once you learn, you might decide you don't want to use the word because you see it as indexing certain things that have nothing to do with you, and which might reproduce ideas in which you are not interested in reproducing," Lane says.
Educate, educate, educate. Whether it's the history of colonialism in Hawaii or other significant historical facts, knowledge helps fight ignorance.
Above all, if you feel uncomfortable saying something, don't say it at all without further research or consideration. It will save you – and everyone – some grief.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stop saying words like 'aloha' out of context