SUP: An Annoying Small Thing with a Big Impact

When I found out that Ann planned to blog today about small things that have big impacts, I knew I had to find my own small thing to write about for Andy’s Corner.  But first I needed to know how to define a “thing.”  So I did the natural thing – look it up on

The thing is, I would never have guessed that the word “thing” could be used in so many ways. lists twenty-one different uses.  The first thing on the list, which I assume is the most widely accepted use, defines a thing as “a material object without life or consciousness; an inanimate object.”  This is the sort of (small) thing that Ann refers to in her blog. However, as a (retired) sociologist inanimate objects are not my thing.

Garfield comic strip by Jim Davis (3/3/1995).

It wasn’t until I got to the sixth definition on the list,“an action, deed, event, or performance,” that I thought of a suitable subject for a small thing – talking.    Not only does the act of talking with others meet the definitional threshold of thingness, talk can be small (as in small talk) and have big consequences.  You may recall that in an Andy’s Corner posted just about a year ago I argued that “weather-speak” is a form of small talk that’s a big deal in our everyday lives.

But there’s another kind of small talk that is just as much, if not more, big deal-ish. I’m referring to greetings – those words of acknowledgement we exchange when we encounter others. “Hi,” “Howdy,” “Good morning,” “How are you?,”  “How’s it going?” – you know the drill.

These folks must know a thing or two about verbal greetings.

Such small words of greeting (and the responses to them) may seem trite and forgettable, but they’re essential ingredients for the taken-for-granted rituals that connect us to others and help maintain relationships. This is what The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition has to say (with an impressive title like that I have to assume they know what they’re talking about!):

Greetings play an essential role in everyday conversational routines and are commonly used as a ritual form of politeness. As such, they serve an important function in building and maintaining social relationships…

Oftentimes greetings are considered the first part of an interactional exchange between two or more people. Through a verbal or non-verbal greeting, the conversation partners can acknowledge each other’s presence and begin a conversational exchange.

If you think I’m over-emoting about the importance of these “little ceremonies of greeting” (as sociologist Erving Goffman calls them), I challenge you to do a simple exercise that in my former life I would assign to my students. The next time you come face to face with someone you know (or don’t know for that matter) don’t greet the person nor return a greeting if offered by the other. It’s harder than you think.

How to be annoying without opening your mouth – get the t-shirt.

Of course, what might be appropriate greetings for some may not be for others. Take for example SUP?, the annoying greeting that’s creeping into our daily lexicon.  It’s supposedly short for “What’s up?  And what is even more annoying is the embellished version, SUP dude?  Just hearing that makes me cringe.  I have even come across web sites, like and, that lay out in detail the proper “etiquette” of how to respond to SUP.  What is our world coming to?

Fortunately, the term “SUP” was not around in 1959 when Vonnegut published his novel.

Speaking of what-our-world-is-coming-to and staying on topic, I can’t help but mention one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959).  For those who have not read it, Wikipedia provides a nice synopsis of the book. Essentially it is about an alien from “Tralfamadore” named Salo who is on a mission to deliver a message to the end of the universe. A small piece of his spacecraft breaks as he comes through our solar system, stranding him here until he can get the part. He requests help from Tralfamadore, “and his fellow Tralfamadorians respond by manipulating human history so that primitive humans evolve and create a civilization in order to produce the replacement part” so he can complete his journey and deliver the message. The message, which in Tralfamadorian language was a single dot, translates to “GREETINGS!

I wonder If Vonnegut had written his novel today whether he would have used “SUP dude” instead of “Greetings.” My guess would be that – if he did – it would get the goat of those aliens at the far end of the universe as much as it gets mine.


  1. Larry Squarepants says:

    I thought “Sup dude?” was an invitation to dine. Now I understand all the blank looks I got when I said “Yes.”


  2. David Ewing says:

    Sup, dude?
    1. I received a draft notice from the Selective Service Administration in 1966 with the single word salutation “Greeting.” Not “Dear Sir,” not “Dear David,” not “AMF Bozo,” not even “Greetings.” That detail weirded me out even more than receiving the draft notice did, because I had enlisted in the Navy a week before.
    2. In Diné bizaad, the Navajo language, the usual greeting is “Yá’át’ééh,” which means “It is good,” and the response is “Aoo’,” which means, simply, “Yes.” If one is feeling chatty, the next formulaic thing to say is “Ha’át’íísh baa naniná?,” which means approximately “Where are you going?” It is bad form to use the Navajo equivalent of “How are you?,” which has the implication that the one you ask is not or ought not to be well, as if you are wondering whether the hex you put on him is beginning to work.


    • theRaggedys says:

      I don’t recall much about my draft notice except that I had assumed I’d be exempt because I was teaching. No such luck.
      I love your example of the Navajo greeting exchanges. Cultural differences are a very big deal. I recall hearing about an Australian aboriginal culture where the normal greeting was something like “where are you going?” Evidently these folks have an amazing internalized sense of direction which is essential for survival in their desert environment.


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