Posted on January 19, 2023

Is It Time to Stop Saying ‘Aloha’ and Other Culturally Sensitive Words Out of Context?

David Oliver, USA Today, January 13, 2023

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.


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.”