Sam Sullivan’s ‘greeting fluency’ program aimed at bridging cultures and building community

By Denise Ryan, Vancouver Sun March 26, 2012

Photograph by: Glenn Baglo, PNG, Vancouver Sun
Berta Lopera is a BertaColombian-born Canadian who is learning Farsi and greetings in other languages as part of former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan’s greeting fluency program.


When Colombian-born lawyer Berta Lopera first arrived in Vancouver to study English, all she wanted was to be understood. But the challenge of communicating in a new language threw her into clouds of anxiety.

Her self-consciousness reached its pinnacle one evening when she attempted to order a hamburger and Coke.

“I was saying ‘Coke, Coke,'” she says. She didn’t understand why the waiter and a growing group of observers were laughing hysterically at her.

When she tried the words out on a friend the next day, he blushed, then explained that her pronunciation of “Coke” sounded like a slang word for part of the male anatomy.

Lopera was mortified. She did not want to be misunderstood. Even as she mastered the language and earned a second law degree at the University of B.C. in 2004, simple things like answering the telephone panicked her.

Now she is enthusiastically reaching out to other newcomers – and her clients – by learning basic greetings in their own languages.

“When you hear some words [in your own language] from a person that does not speak it, it means to me: ‘I accept and embrace difference, and I acknowledge and accept you.'” Lopera is particularly proud of mastering a few simple Farsi phrases. “It’s a wonderful way to approach people. They smile.”

Lopera is becoming “greeting fluent” with the help of former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan’s Greeting Fluency Initiative.

Sullivan became a minor celebrity in Turin, Italy, when he dusted off a few simple Italian phrases – which he’d learned growing up on Vancouver’s east side – while accepting the Olympic flag on behalf of his city.

Now Sullivan is helping other Vancouverites become “greeting fluent” with Greeting Fluency Day this month.

On Saturday, March 31, Sullivan and his Global Civic Policy Society will hold a public forum to teach basic greetings such as “Hello, how are you?” “Goodbye,” and “I’m sorry,” in a variety of different languages.

The society’s greeting fluency initiative is a lighthearted approach to resolving deeper issues of communities divided by ethnic differences.

“We are trying to find ways to make a more inclusive community and demonstrate respect for newer citizens,” Sullivan told The Vancouver Sun.

When he travelled to Beijing as an Olympic torchbearer, Sullivan was stunned that his televised interviews in Mandarin created a media frenzy.

“It certainly was a great icebreaker,” he said. “People pay attention when you honour them by even spending a little bit of energy trying to reach out.”

Sullivan taught himself to speak rudimentary Cantonese beginning when he was a teenager.

“Some people have said the reason I was elected was because I could fumble my way around in Cantonese,” he said.

Cantonese is just one of the 10 languages he can use to give a cheerful greeting.

“It’s the first words that give you the most benefits,” said Sullivan. “You wouldn’t believe what happens when you walk into a Thai restaurant and greet someone in their own language.”

In a city like Vancouver, where more than 100 languages are spoken, the benefits of greeting fluency go beyond charm and politesse.

Sullivan points to a recent Vancouver Foundation study that identifies isolation, ethnic divisions and lack of neighbourly connection as the No. 1 social concern for the region’s city-dwellers.

A staggering 75 per cent of participants in a discussion project aimed at identifying areas of concern for Metro Vancouver spontaneously identified “isolation, its consequences and the craving for connection” as a theme.

In the foundation’s 2011 Our Community report, community leaders expressed deep concern about “a lack of connection between the many diverse cultural and ethnic groups that now reside in Metro Vancouver.”

Learning just a few words in several languages is a small investment with big returns, said Sullivan. “People won’t buy into multiculturalism unless they are invested in it.

“Language is a really important piece of self-identity. You can really make someone feel like a valued member of the community, build bridges and open doors by greeting them in their language.”

The point is not to become an expert in the language. The greeting-fluency initiative, and Saturday’s event, will be more of a global communication party than a lecture. The event includes a lunch sampling of a variety of cultural foods to go along with phrases in Chinook, French, Mandarin, Farsi, Korean, Russian, Japanese, Punjabi and Tagalog, which are on the fluency menu.

“We are not teaching language,” Sullivan said. “We are teaching respect.”


The event will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Woodward’s building, 149 W. Hastings. Admission by donation. Pre-registration recommended by email at

(You can brush up before-hand by checking out the videos on


Do you speak a second language? Make a video of yourself or someone you know saying “hello,” “thank you” and “goodbye” in a language other than English. Then upload the video to YouTube with the title “Vancouver Sun Fluency Challenge” and identify the language spoken. We’ll stitch all your clips together and feature you on our web-site in the run-up to Greeting Fluency Day.
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