When you meet someone on the street, maybe a friend or a relative, how do you greet them? Some might choose a formal “Good morning!” with a wave of the hand. Or maybe you want something more casual like “Hello!” with a fist bump or high-five.
Or if you are in the mood for a light chit-chat, you say, “How are you doing?”.
All of these are valid greetings. But one of the most used greetings we hear today is the simple, 3-letter word: ‘Hey!’
3 out of 4 people don’t think it’s rude to call someone “Hey.” Just make sure you say it in a friendly tone of voice and avoid it on formal occasions. In the company of friends and acquaintances, “Hey” is perfectly fine.
Nowadays, “Hey” is used in many different scenarios. But due to its informality, some might find it rude. To find out more we surveyed 105 people in the US.
75% of the respondents said that they would address someone with “Hey”.
25% said that they would not call someone “Hey”. And while those people are only the minority, it’s still worth considering if the word “Hey” is something you shouldn’t say to everybody.
Here’s the meaning of the word “Hey” and how you can use it without rubbing people the wrong way.
The Meaning Behind ‘Hey’
The word “Hey” has plenty of meanings. Right now, Wiktionary has 7 definitions of the word, with 6 entries defining the word as an interjection.
Interestingly, the word “Hey” isn’t unique to the English language. Other languages around the world use similar expressions. All of them loosely translates to “Hey” in English. It shows that the word “Hey” (and others related to it) are all-natural expressions people make.
“Hey” can mean many things. It can be a shout for joy, a sign of protest, or a way to call somebody. It is a versatile term that is used across the globe.
That’s why it is so easy to construe it to mean something rude and undelightful.
So should people remove “Hey” from their vocabulary to avoid appearing ill-mannered?
The good news is that you can keep saying it how many times you want. The fault is not in the word. Rather, it has to do a lot with the speaker.
Your Tone Plays a Big Role
Fun fact: In communication, words make up only 7% of the process. Everything else is reliant on non-verbal communication. And here, we find that the tone of your voice plays 38% in this field. 
These rules aren’t meant to be taken as hard, unchanging facts. Instead, interpret them as a guide for better communication.
The way you say your words carry meaning and implication. That’s why the word “Hey” isn’t rude. What makes it rude is how people say it.
For example, you want to call the attention of a friend. If you say “Hey!” in a loud, irritated, and angry voice, then sure, they will think you are rude. But if you say the same word but a little softer and friendlier, then the story changes.
Fortunately, you can master the skill of choosing the appropriate tone for your voice. Here is a quick guide on how to use “Hey” without appearing mean.
How to Say “Hey” (And How Not to Say it)
The Good Way
Let’s first start with how you can use “Hey” without coming off as rude.
A general tip that you can keep in mind is to use “Hey” with other words. Just shouting “Hey!” and expecting the other person to understand you won’t work in your favor.
What you can do instead is combine it in a sentence. Group it with other words or maybe with the receiver’s name.
“Hey! You forgot your watch!”
“Hey, Jimmy. You look good today.”
“Hey, can you get the lights for me?”
Another tip is to say your greeting, request, or command in a kinder tone. Do your best to control your emotions, especially if you are angry.
Avoid shouting your words or purposely sounding sarcastic.
Instead, if you want to communicate with someone (especially if you are heated), do it politely but directly.
Finally, understand that “Hey” is rude in certain countries and cultures. Some societal norms may not allow certain words and greetings. If you are traveling somewhere you are unfamiliar with, learn about their language. This can help you feel more confident in talking and avoid any awkward encounters.
The Bad Way
Now let’s talk about how not to use the word “Hey”.
First and foremost, avoid using an angry, irritated, or harsh tone. This can make people feel uncomfortable conversing with you. This will also make any word you say sound impolite.
Second, never follow “Hey” with an insult. It’s a given that you should never name call anybody, but you’ll see a lot of rude people using “Hey” followed by an insult.
Some examples include:
“Hey, loser! Give me all your money right now.”
“Hey! You get back into your place, you trash.”
“Hey, it looks like dorkface wants more.”
Never use “Hey” in any formal settings. It’s an informal word and should be reserved with strangers, friends, families, and co-workers.
Saying “Yo” or “Hey” to bosses, leaders, and other important people can come off as disrespectful. We’re pretty sure you don’t want to lose your job.
“Hey” is a versatile word that has plenty of meanings. It can be used as a greeting, an expression, and an insult. Because of its flexibility, some people can find its use to be rude.
But the term itself is not what makes it rude. Rather, it is the way in how a speaker uses it. That’s why if you want to use it in your daily vocabulary, always keep a watch on your tone.
Don’t be scared of using a word because some people find it rude or disrespectful. Know that in today’s world, a lot of people find “Hey” as something normal and expected. What matters the most is the intention you have behind every syllable you make.
Matt Vargas is an author and public speaking coach with a degree in sociology and more than ten years of practical experience. Matt is responsible for the empirical surveys at everyday-courtesy.com, is a passionate recreational musician, and blogs here about his experiences in the field of interpersonal communication.