You Are Welcome

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A student welcomes Erin McDonough to St. Andrew’s Primary School in Jinja (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

By Maria Zangari

Entebbe, Uganda– There is something disingenuous about the phrase “You’re welcome” that I didn’t realize until visiting Uganda. It is as if you are saying, “I’m glad to have you here, but not glad enough to speak the whole phrase instead of a contraction.” Maybe that’s cynical. But the first time our group was welcomed into a school with many empathetic “You are welcome” greetings it struck me how welcomed I truly felt. Although now, at the end of the trip, I have heard this phrase hundreds of times it still feels heartfelt and it is this genuineness that I will bring back to the United States.

Every time I walked into Ugandan classrooms, the teachers offered me their hands and with a smile on their face proclaimed, “You are most welcome!” The students then often greeted me with the same fervor. I felt welcomed into these classes. I felt that my presence was noticed and appreciated and that, for the most part, both teachers and students were happy to have me visit their classrooms. It is the common phrase that drew me in. It made me feel less like an intruder and more like a friend in the classes than the quick “You’re welcome” would have. As a lover of words it strikes me how miniscule modifications to a phrase change its connotations.

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St. Jude Primary School students in Jinja (photo: Paula Longo)

Our group visited craft markets in Jinja and Kampala and both times we were lured into shops with “You are welcome” immediately followed by a gesture encouraging us to enter. I find it interesting that somehow, even as a business ploy, this phrase spoken without contraction feels true. I know that the shop owners want me, a white American, in their shops. I know that I am often their target customer. But beyond the monetary appeal, I feel a sense of true happiness and often pride from women when I enter their shops. Owners sometimes point you towards items they think might interest you most. I am most excited when these end up being the exact items I was looking for. Again I feel welcomed and enjoy the bartering process as the attendants stress the importance of the purchase.

The conversations

“Hi, my name is Maria.”
“I’m Thomas. You’re welcome here.”

and

“Hi, my name is Maria.”
“I’m Thomas. You are most welcome here.”

Holy Cross Primary School in Jinja (photo: Paula Longo)

convey two very different feelings. It is amazing how shortened speech can cheapen the quality of the words. And it is hopeful to realize how quickly genuine meaning can be restored. I will bring this genuineness home with me, along with the non-contracted phrase, and I hope I will be able to better express warm welcomes to my guests the way Ugandans have welcomed us into their lives.

One thought on “You Are Welcome

  1. Maria, what you have discovered is how mindfulness of what we say can carry so much importance. A phrase that we utter casually can be meaningless, because we show such evident lack of concern about who may be hearing it and how they receive it. But when we take the time–as you rightly note, to not use contractions so often–and deliver words with a weight to each syllable, the hearer has the sense that we truly mean what we are saying. Africans listen for these weights to what we say, and those weighted words leave lasting impressions for all to savor later on.

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