Sizing Up

Living in Soweto for the past month, I have passed scarcely a day without being asked a friendly “how is it?” The question comes from both people I have gotten to know and strangers I pass on the street. On the face of it, the phrase makes sense, even if to my American ears it comes out phonetically resembling “howzit?” more than anything else. Within South African English it is a common greeting that inquires into the listener’s state of being, a cousin of the American “how are you?” Linguistic anthropologists would say it serves as more than a request for referential information—only in a select portion of cases does the speaker have an immediate need or desire to know how his or her interlocutor is doing at that particular point—but instead it fulfills a phatic function. Elaborated by linguist Roman Jakobson as one of the several key functions of speech acts, the word “phatic” refers to the medium of communication, which can be literal (e.g., starting an audio system with “testing, one, two, three”) or a more metaphorical social medium (as in this case: maintaining an open and reciprocal line of social contact based on the values of mutual communal care). In this sense, while the forms they take vary across languages and cultures from “how are you?” to “qué tal?” to “how is it?” they do a similar kind of work for the people who use them in ensuring a clear channel for social discourse.

However, such a universal description of function does not capture the whole story. Besides constructing an ongoing sociality, in this setting it also emerges as a response to the tangible differences between the people I’m living around and me. The most visible of these distinctions is racial. Nationally, South Africa has a sizable white minority compared with other parts of the continent, but it remains strikingly segregated, particularly in those areas outside major cities, like Soweto, that under apartheid were reserved for black workers excluded from residence in the city’s prime commercial districts. Many Sowetans have commented that white people don’t frequently come to this area outside a handful of historical attractions; even fewer live here. Thus, my very presence as a white man staying, even for a few months, in the township (as opposed to the more distant suburbs that have been destinations of white flight) is itself marked as unusual. Within the everyday greetings directed my way is a subtext of making sense of me as a person who, to adopt a phrase from Mary Douglas, is in some sense “out of place.” In longer conversations this subtle motive comes to the surface, and I’m asked outright why I chose to stay in Soweto. Even in the more ephemeral exchanges, though, I get the sense of passersby sizing me up; in issuing a friendly greeting, they are also trying to place me and to see if all is well, since I strike many as a bit unusual.

Beyond the visible differences that set me apart, another dimension—this one sonic—emerges as soon as I open my mouth to respond. My distinctly non-South African accent makes it impossible for me to pass even as a white local, and even if people have trouble identifying exactly where I’m from, I am always perceived as a foreigner. Since my outsider status is so noticeable to everyone I meet, I constantly have to explain why I have come here. For an anthropologist seeking to discuss my project with as many people as possible, these exchanges work in my favor, something I relish even after I’ve explained myself hundreds of times (that is the work of an anthropologist, right?). Nonetheless, it is another way in which a simple greeting constitutes a way to calculate my social coordinates.

In those conversations that extend beyond a simple back and forth, I hear quite standardized follow-up questions, which have evolved during my stay. The mandate of any scientist (social or otherwise) is to identify patterns in data, and even informal conversations have become part of the corpus that I am analyzing as part of my research. In the first few weeks I have been here, people almost always ask how South Africa and/or Soweto have been treating me. My knee-jerk response has been to explain that everyone, especially in Soweto, has been overwhelmingly kind and welcoming. The longer I’ve been here, though, the more I’ve noticed the questions changing. More recently a common response at this stage of the conversation is to ask me to compare the United States and what I have seen in South Africa. It’s hard to make such general comparisons, so I have struggled to come up with a good answer. More importantly, though, the question itself suggests a presumed fundamental difference between the two countries that, given my time in each, I might have the capacity to distill into an essential characteristic or two. I try to satisfy the unusual curiosity many have of the U.S. while emphasizing the diversity of each place. Still, the line of questioning suggests something of the place the U.S. occupies in the popular imagination.

These queries, both subtle and explicit, embedded within common greetings do not exhaust the complexity at play in such seemingly pedestrian encounters, and they may not be accurate assessments after all. Still, it illustrates that within a simple “how is it?” multiple layers of meaning comingle (like an onion, or a cake, depending on your preferred metaphor), not all of which are legible at once to all the actors involved. As I learn more about life in southern Africa, I hope to explore some more of these layers in all their richness.