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How to address Tibetans? (Lhasa dialect)

When you meet people from a different culture, the first question you ask yourself is how they communicate between each other on a daily-basis. How do they greet each other? How do they say, “Good bye” How do people address each other? What do they talk about first? Tibetan society, as with all societies, has its own customs.

© Olivier Föllmi

Saying “Hello”

Common mistakes:

We often hear or read that in Tibet, the usual way to greet one another is with the phrase “Tashi Delek” (བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།). In reality, “Tashi Delek” is not a common way to greet people.

“Tashi Delek” means “Good fortune” or “Great auspiciousness”. Traditionally, this expression is solely used during particularly happy events. Tibetans use this expression to both congratulate and wish great happiness to the person they are talking to. For instance, we will wish “Losar Tashi Delek” (ལོ་གསར་བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།) to wish a happy new year. We utter the phrase “Dhrungkar Tashi Delek” (འཁྲུངས་སྐར་བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།) to wish a happy birthday. We can also wish a “Yiktse lönpar Tashi Delek” (ཡིག་ཚད་ལོན་པར་བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།) to congratulate a student for passing their exams.

In Tibet, “Tashi Delek” is used only during these occasions.

Tibetans who live abroad are often in contact with cultures where there is a tradition of greeting people with a general expression, that can be used for almost every encounter, such as “Hello” or “How are you?”. Some Tibetans living abroad somehow started using “Tashi Delek” in the same way, no matter the context.

The actual tradition in Tibet to express “Hello”:

In reality, people do not greet each other the same way as in Europe or most Western countries. There are different ways of greeting people.

First, when you meet someone for the first time, you will say “excellent health” (“Gku Khamsang”) (སྐུ་ཁམས་བཟང་།) use the same expression “excellent health” when you run into someone that you do not know well but want to greet anyway. You can also use this expression when you see someone that you know but have not seen for a while. In that case, you usually add a “long time no see” (“Mage Yuring”) (མ་མཇལ་ཡུན་རིང་།), which is, this time, quite like Western traditions.

Then, when you’re well acquainted with someone, if they wish to show you a certain familiarity (in a positive way), they will probably ask you “where are you going” (“Ghabar drokha” (ག་པར་འགྲོ་ག) in the informal speech or “Ghabar pekha” (ག་པར་ཕེབས་ག) using the formal speech. The person talking to you does not necessarily expect a detailed answer. You can simply answer “I am going outside” (“Chilo la Drokiyin”) (ཕྱི་ལོག་ལ་འགྲོ་གི་ཡོད།). This will be enough. When you hear that question for the first time, you might think that the person talking to you is way too indiscrete. You might be surprised to hear that it is a very common way of greeting people. It is a polite way to address people when you run into them. Don’t worry, you don’t need to give them your detailed itinerary and travel plans.

Even on the phone, your Tibetan friends may ask you “where are you” (“Ghabar yö” (ག་པར་ཡོད།) in the informal speech and “Ghabar chug yö” (ག་པར་བཞུགས་ཡོད།) if they’re being formal). They may also ask you “what are you doing” (“Ghare chekiyö” (ག་རེ་བྱེད་ཀྱི་ཡོད།) in the informal speech and “Ghare nan gi yö” (ག་རེ་གནང་གི་ཡོད།) using formal speech). Your friend usually does not expect you to give him or her your exact location or your current activity. Actually, if you gave it to him or her, he or she will not consider it an important information. Again, it is simply a polite way of starting a conversation.

Tibetan phone conversations of course also have some unique quirks and are rather funny. Telling you more about it in a later post might be interesting (questions asked at the beginning of the call, leaving vocal messages and video calls on Wechat, how to hang up)

Saying good bye

The way of saying good bye changes depending on whether you are the one leaving or if it’s the person you’re addressing that is leaving.

If you are leaving, you have to say to the person who is staying “Please stay here” (“De-a” (བསྡད་ཨ།) - informal, “Shu-o” (བཞུགས་ཨོ།) - formal).

If you are staying, you have to say to the person leaving “Please go” (“Gyu-a” (རྒྱུགས་ཨ།) – informal, “Phe-a/o” (ཕེབས་ཨ།/ཨོ།) -formal) or “Please go slowly” (“Ghali Gyu-a" (ག་ལེར་རྒྱུགས་ཨ།) - informal “Ghali Phe-a/o” (ག་ལེར་ཕེབས་ཨ།/ཨོ།) using the honorific form.

Bonus: showing the palm of your hand to say good bye

One surprising custom is the gesture used for saying good bye. People will show the palm of their hand and move it. This gesture is meant to show respect. Usually, people will also say “Stay here” or “Please go slowly” at the same time.

Note: We created our own Tibetan transliteration system. It might seem a bit basic for those who have studied Tibetan language before. However, it seemed important to us to use a simple way to transliterate the Tibetan language, without being too technical. We did not use the academic Wylie transliteration, which seemed too complicated and therefore not fit for our purpose here.


Salt Butter Tea is a blog about Tibetan culture.

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