The ‘Wrong’ Way to Answer ‘How Are You?’

by ZitaMF - Posts (4). Posted Monday, November 12th, 2012 at 9:26 am

- How are you?
– Good. You?
– Pretty good.
– That’s good.

This was an actual exchange between two students sitting at my table in the dining hall. When I heard it, I literally burst out laughing and quipped, ”Well, that was a meaningful conversation.” Maybe I was being a bit insensitive but, although I have lived in the U.S. for more than two years and know this is a normal conversation, it still strikes me as odd.

One of the most challenging aspects of being an international student is that you not only have to master a foreign language, but also to recognize the meaning that hides behind the words.

Almost every day I am asked, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” I’m expected to respond, “Good” or “Fine,” and ask the other person how they are, to which they will also respond, “Good.”

To this day, this style of greeting strikes me as an abuse of a question with which people show care and concern to one another in my culture. When somebody asks, “How are you?” in Hungary, I assume that person is truly interested in my well-being and wants to listen to what I have to share.

In the U.S., this expression means, “Hi,” and does not imply that the person is the least bit interested in my personal life.

Some examples:

After realizing what these great words of appreciation, care, and kindness mean in the U.S., one can feel a bit betrayed and resentful of their conversational partners, who suddenly seem superficial and insincere. But the expression is simply a cultural greeting; one should not misinterpret it as an initiation of profound conversation.

In general, people from the U.S. do not like to express their emotions to strangers or acquaintances. They prefer to put on a permanent smile and mask their other feelings.  The U.S. culture is based on individualism – the idea that one should only rely on one’s self and family – and this often leads them to avoid getting too close to others, including by using meaningful expressions in ways that might seem superficial to foreigners.

This is why another word that should have a deep meaning is used quite casually in the U.S. – “friend.”

While you might expect that this label implies a close relationship, people in the U.S. call almost everyone they know a “friend.”

This contributes to the famous American friendliness and informality, because calling everyone a friend gives the impression that everyone is a friend. But it also makes it hard for people, especially people from another culture, to decipher who is a true friend from all those who are assigned this description.

People in the U.S. are certainly capable of having genuine interest in another person’s well-being and of forming genuine relationships. It is important to realize, however, that they often prefer to keep an emotional distance from others, including their friends.

The verbal subtleness of words like “friend” and phrases like “how are you?” can be difficult to understand, but one of the challenges and the beauties of living abroad is embracing the peculiarities of the host country. To me this means learning how to speak not only the language but also the culture.

41 Responses to “The ‘Wrong’ Way to Answer ‘How Are You?’”

  1. Homayoon says:

    Interesting tip. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Daniel says:

    In case one were tempted to conclude that this “how are you” style greeting is just an American oddity, consider that over a billion Chinese people everyday are asking each other the same trivial question “How are you?” Literally, “you are good?” (Ni hao ma?)

  3. Wentao says:

    @Daniel

    Well, “ni hao ma” is hardly ever used in daily conversation in China. It’s more like an artificial translation of the English “How are you”. This phrase appears more on starter Chinese textbooks than anywhere else – similarly, English textbooks in China teach equally rarely used phrases like “How do you do”.

    As you may know, the Chinese keep a distance from strangers and do not greet them. Among friends, they may say “hello” “hi”, with a smile and a wave of hand (but almost never physical contact, such as high-fives, fist-bumps or hugs). If you go to the laid-back hutongs of Beijing, you can also hear the authentic, but more or less rustic and quaint, “chi le ma?” (“Have you eaten?”)

    • Sandal Sam says:

      Since the Chinese had struggle with famine throughout the ages then the fact that somebody had eaten, one can assumed life, at least at the moment, is good or okay.

  4. Larry says:

    The standard greeting is China was or maybe still is in some areas: “Have you eaten today”

  5. Anna Malinovskaya says:

    I had the same feeling about the “How are you?” question when I just came to the U.S. I’m Russian, and when I meet my Russian friends on campus and ask them this question, I really expect something more than just “good” – I expect details.

  6. Daniel says:

    Wentao, okay, you caught my exaggerated claim that a billion Chinese every day were greeting each other with “Ni hao ma?” But to say it is hardly used in every day life is also an exaggeration… maybe in your personal circumstance, but in my experience I heard it often (I lived in China for seven years). Maybe it is only used with foreigners! Ha ha. In any case, “Have you eaten?” – which I also heard frequently in Dongbei – is just another verbal way of acknowledging someone’s presence, not an expression of true concern or inquiry about someone’s food intake. My point was that other cultures have these types of greetings, and they all have to be learned.

    • Trisha says:

      In the 0′s when I went from Australia to London, England. People started to greet me with “Alright?” I hated it because it made me paranoid I didn’t look alright! They weren’t really asking if I was okay, they were saying hello, or acknowledging my presence.

      • Sophie says:

        In London- “alright” means like Are you alright as in are you okay, and is just a general greeting
        Person 1: Hey, alright?
        Person 2: yeah I’m good thanks what about you?
        Person 1: Yeah I’m alright

  7. Rusty S. says:

    When I heard it, I literally burst out laughing and quipped, ”Well, that was a meaningful conversation.”

    The verb, to quip, is exclusively used of others. It’s pretentious to say, “I quipped.”

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      Hmm I’m not sure I agree about the use of quipped. To me it just means to make a witty or sarcastic remark. In my mind it describes a type of humor and doesn’t have any additional connotations. I’m happy to be proven wrong on that though if you’ve got evidence to the contrary.

  8. xyx920 says:

    i am a chinese english teacher, in many teaching books, “how are you” is answered like”i am sad.” “i am proud” etc. Personally, it is not right . maybe “how are you feeling?”is better than “how are you?”.. yes?

  9. xyx920 says:

    ZitaMF,are u Chinese?

  10. Joshua says:

    As an American, I probably hate this phrase more than any other. It demands a fake answer that makes people with legitimate problems feel inadequate.

  11. Steven says:

    In Indonesia, people ask ‘how are you’ (apa kabar? or gimana kabarnya?) all the time and the answer is almost always ‘baik baik saja’ (all right, just ok) or just ‘baik’ (ok) or maybe ‘alhamdulilah baik’ (praise god, i’m good). Alternatively, people on the street will also often ask you ‘mau ke mana?’ (where are you going?) although they’re not necessarily looking for a definite answer or even an answer at all.

    White it is important to note that Americans like to keep some emotional distance and that ‘how are you’ isn’t an invitation to talk about your feelings, depending on the context there might be a lot more different responses to that question. Sure, if you go to lunch and the server says ‘hi, how are you’, she probably doesn’t want to know how you are beyond ‘good’ or ‘ok’, but if you get into your office or even your classroom and a coworker or classmate asks ‘how are you’, quite often you might be able to say a bit more if you want to, and they might be curious as well. So if I get into the office and the person next to me asks that, I might say ‘doing alright. Didn’t get much sleep last night but saw a good show.’ To which they might ask further questions, etc

    So although with strangers or very loose acquaintances I would agree, I think that ‘how are you’ can mean a bit more depending on the context and I don’t think it necessarily demands a fake answer. And even in the most basic contexts, all of these are quite typical answers that many people give:

    alright
    doing alright
    i’m ok
    fine
    things are good
    i’ve been better
    pretty good
    busy but…
    been a little hectic but…
    tired…
    can’t complain

    There’s tons of answers if you want to go there, and it’s not unusual even at a restaurant for a customer every once in a while to say much more than ‘good’ even though they don’t have to, just as a way to be friendly. Although it may not be necessary, that doesn’t mean the person doesn’t care. They may not want to be friends, but they could still be going out of their way to be extra friendly.

    So sure, don’t read too much into that question right away, but I would also say don’t oversimplify it or forget about context either. You may be missing out on much more interesting short conversations with people that, who knows, could even lead to friendship.

    • mike says:

      Exactly!! It’s a no-pressure way to start a conversation, and if nothing progresses past, ‘how are you’ etc. then we can quickly disengage without it being awkward. Speaking from years of taxi driver experience, someone whose primary engagement phrase ‘how are you’ will almost always be good natured, open and friendly.

  12. mike says:

    You shouldn’t assume that this ‘how are you’ exchange is so trivial and meaningless. It is a very open ended way to greet someone, without obligating the other to engage in extensive conversation, like an acknowledgement. It is reflective of a respect for privacy. If the other person doesn’t feel like engaging seriously, they don’t have to. One of the worst mistakes I see foreign students make is that they assume American English has no subtlety.

    • Joshua says:

      It is trivial and meaningless. The standard answer is “Good, how are you?” If you say anything else, you’ll get a look like you’re from another country or even another planet (and I say that as someone born and raised in the mountains of Virginia). It causes people who aren’t doing well to say that they are, which is one of the serious cultural problems in this country. This sort of idiocy is all over the current political dialogues over health care and other types of public assistance (e.g. SNAP, otherwise known as “food stamps”). I don’t know how you can’t see that…but then again the answer may rest in examples like the fact that you filled in “google.com” as your “Website.”

      • mike says:

        I’m sorry that you feel that way. I often have people who I don’t know telling me all sorts of things that are going wrong for them… Usually after I ask ‘how are you.’ And I listen.
        But sure, if someone asks ‘how are you’ and you get a say something smart-mouthed and superior in return, they will look at you that way.

        And again, like I said I put google in website field because some reply systems require a valid url in that field before you can post.

  13. Mike says:

    I’ll leave it up to moderation to decide whether to show this further reply: I have to get this off my chest though.

    The author of this thread says,
    Quote: “I literally burst out laughing and quipped, ”Well, that was a meaningful conversation.” Maybe I was being a bit insensitive but, “”

    ‘Insensitive’ is not the word. I guarantee that whomever you said this to in the dining hall now thinks you are arrogant and dull. In America, we would say that you are ”a little off”. In other words you are not really understanding what is going on, and/or you are emotionally not very mature.
    Perhaps you need to explore a little beyond the sterilized environment of your college campus. I can promise you that your ‘insensitive’ comment, in many areas of the US would be an invitation to a fist fight. If i were you, I would be very reticent to ask that pleasantries be dropped, because you might be surprised to know what we are really thinking. Americans are far from stupid.
    Before you start assuming that such pleasantries have no deeper meaning, I’d suggest that you venture off campus. America is a very large and diverse place, more so than foreign students often realize…so often what they see of America is only a caricature.

    • Joshua says:

      Of course, one could easily make the same assessment of your comments that you’ve made of what others have said in this blog posting. You certainly come across as arrogant and emotionally immature due to the way you act like a know-it-all coming down from Mt Sinai with your particular view on this issue. As for avoiding caricatures, you certainly do very little service to such points when you say things like this little gem: “I can promise you that your ‘insensitive’ comment, in many areas of the US would be an invitation to a fist fight.” You also do very little for the idea that “Americans are far from stupid” when you enter “google.com” in the “Website” field.

      • mike says:

        I put Google.com because some boards won’t let you post unless you put a URL. I don’t know why you think that’s so terrible.
        I commented on this post because @ our college there was a group of foreign engineering students; everyone bent over backwards for these guys , tried so hard to be open understanding, accepting, patient. after a few months, You know what they got in return? This ‘its cool to bash on american culture’ attitUde I see often with certain foreign students, and sometimes downright vitriolic assaults on our way of life. And to us its disappointing. But honestly, I am sure that age has a lot to do with it…freshman age college guys are often struggling to find self identity, and behaviour like this is due to that in large part. I mean, there are plenty of american freshman aged college students that are cynical towards american culture as well.
        . Thing is, once you get older, you start to realize that all these pleasantries and boring civilized society stuff is actually pretty nice. Some of us have an appreciation for what it took to build the society we take advantage of every day of our lives. And its a little off putting when a foreign student laughs at our country, but will take advantage of it’s system to the fullest.. a system built with the blood sweat and tears of thousands upon thousands of good intentioned, compassionate public servants.
        Believe it or not, a lot of us actually mean it when we say ‘how are you’.
        You’re right about my fist fight comment that one was uncalled for. That was really addressed to those aforementioned students, who probably needed a good spanking or two! That was just a joke, so don’t get all bent out of shape.

        • Joshua says:

          Well, I am considerably older than any college students and I don’t buy the bill of goods that you’re selling. I also find your almost xenophobic image of the ungrateful foreigner to be just the sort of attitude that sows seeds of further division. Your notion of your opinion and attitude being some product of maturity and understanding (and others’ a lack thereof) is also one that I find disturbing. Your perception of their practices and attitudes as inferior is fruit from the same tree as the very behaviors you speak against. People who simply have different opinions on social practices are not immature or ungrateful. They just have different opinions. That’s what it means to live in an incredibly diverse culture.

    • Helena says:

      I’m sorry but you’re the prime example of the dumb American she is describing… You say Americans are far from stupid, I agree. I have been living in the USA for over 30 years now after moving here from Sweden. And I have met many intelligent and interesting people here in the USA. But to say that she as a college student has no right to have her opinion on the phrase “how are you” and to think it sounds ridiculous… that makes you the ridiculous one. What do you have to say about me then? I agree with her and after 30 years still think it’s an absurd way of greeting each other. I have lived and traveled all over the country and see where she is coming from. It’s people like you that give Americans a ridiculous image abroad, unfortunately.

  14. Mikey says:

    To further explain, how would you feel if you went to shake someones hand, and they just laughed at you and said ‘well, that’s silly.!’
    Hand shaking is pretty silly if you really think about it, (probably sillier more so than saying ‘How are you’,) but I’d bet you’d be pretty offended by that. I bet you’d smile outwardly, but think to yourself, “god…what an *******”. Anybody would!

    Look, I GET that the idiom ‘How are you’ can be uncomfortable…I really, really do.
    But why not just say that? Why does the author of this article feel it necessary to drag us out and horsewhip us for a perfectly reasonable and open expression.

    The troll has pointed out that I am coming across as insensitive and xenophobic, if this is the case I apologize and assure you that this is not the case. I certainly do not think that all foreign students are a certain way. My significant other and best friend are Korean and Japanese citizens respectively, (second language english), I know all about cultural differences and bridging the gap and the difficulties that exist. I do encourage diversity and honesty; in fact I am in frequent contact with exchange students, and I often open a conversation by asking how they like the local area and the country in general. Very seldom is their answer 100% positive, nor would I ever expect it to be; they are being candid. We speak about differences, and so on, and everyone learns something.
    But the author of the article is treating americans like some kind of laughable exhibit; and it’s reflective of an attitude I see among *certain groups of exchange students…face it, it’s fashionable to bash US culture. Well, guess what, we might laugh it off, but it’s sometimes very hurtful. I personally was pretty offended by this article. What’s really hurtful is when you earnestly reach out to a foreign student and they basically tell you that your culture is a joke. I’ve SEEN it happen folks.
    Americans are the first to admit that we aren’t perfect…nobody can deny that. But that doesnt mean we like getting abused all the time.
    To the author: You think we throw around phrases like how are you, and don’t give a flying hoot how you are, or how our friends are for that matter? Give me a break ! Youre making it seem to foreign students like we’re totally closed off and pathological. Americans are very willing to help, and if we ask ‘how are you’, we are asking ‘how are you.’ Sure, if someone asks ‘how are you’ and you dont know them very well, it may not be the best idea to give a 20 min explanation of what’s going wrong in your life.
    My number one message to foreign students would be this:
    In general, we are happy to help, and WE DO CARE HOW YOU FEEL. Talk to us! But consider how we feel as well. And like the article says, some of us are indeed capable of having a genuine interest in a persons well being lol =D”
    Sigh*
    I think whoever wrote this article has had some bad experiences socially here and is venting a lot, just like I was when i was venting about some students automatic disdain for everything american.

    This has been an interesting conversation, i have learned a lot here. Thanks

    • Author says:

      Mike, I have left the “sterilized environment” of my campus several times, visited many other parts of the U.S. (and America, the continent, too), lived in a Southern state, and in a city on the East coast in the U.S., but I always found it challenging to adjust my way of greeting someone to the culturally accepted “how are you.” This doesn’t mean that I have had bad social experiences in the U.S. (on the contrary, I am having a wonderful time), it just means that this was one of the few difficulties I faced.

      The quote “well, that was a meaningful conversation..” was a way for me to show the readers what my initial, cultural reaction was to the conversation I heard at the cafeteria. Although I was understanding what was going on, that conversation did not make much sense to me because of the way I was raised, the culture I was brought up in, and maybe my own personality traits too. Yes, my comment was probably arrogant as you said, but I hoped that analyzing and writing an article about why I made that comment shows that I am not judging the culture, but trying to understand it. The article was trying to show the process of adjustment I went through: from the “insensitive comment” to understanding that some people do have “genuine interest” in my well-being. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

      I agree with you on the fact that some foreign students like to bash on U.S. culture; I know many students like that studying in the U.S. and Europe (where I come from). However, we have to admit that people in the U.S. also often generalize, use stereotypes like they are facts, and make fun of other countries without even knowing a little about their cultures. Anyways, I, too, wish that people would be more understanding towards other cultures, but I admit that sometimes that’s not easy. Most international students I know are trying to adjust to the different practices, get to know and understand the culture more (probably that’s one of the reasons why someone would want to study in another country).

      To sum up, I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful or ungrateful (in the article or the cafeteria back then) and I’m sorry if I offended you. This was a way for me to express my own ideas on greeting practices (which are obviously different from U.S. practices) and my struggle to understand what “how are you” means to locals. My whole point is that for me the expression is not perfectly reasonable and open. Also, I don’t agree with your point that “Americans are the first to admit that we aren’t perfect” or whenever you talked about “Americans” as group, not because I don’t think what you say can be true, but because I think that whenever we can, we should avoid generalizations like that. This is what I was trying to point out at the end of the article when I said that “people in the U.S. are certainly capable of having genuine interest..”. In other words, I do understand that I cannot just generalize and assume that everyone is superficial and lacks interests in others.

    • Joshua says:

      Once again, you show your social ignorance. First of all, handshaking is almost a globally universal concept that is much older (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handshake). And once again, the purpose of this blog is to acquaint students from outside the US with US-ian customs and other such things. You keep acting like the writer of this particular blog post is venting his spleen against the US in some vendetta and you need to get a clue. This blog is run by the Voice of America, an agency of the US federal government and the writers are chosen by an employee! Once again, you’re sounding like a xenophobic prig because you keep blabbering off this paranoia that the United States is somehow roundly hated and despised by exchange students, “getting abused all the time” by what you see as wicked foreigners. Grow up!

      Then you “ask” the author, “You think we throw around phrases like how are you, and don’t give a flying hoot how you are, or how our friends are for that matter?” I’ll say that I certainly think so–and I’ve lived here at least as long as you have; it’s become little more than a meaningless formality. You say “Youre [sic] making it seem to foreign students like we’re totally closed off and pathological,” but throughout the comments on this post, you’ve acted closed off pathological in your responses to the writer’s sentiments!

      • Steven says:

        O internet. Mike I don’t think you need to/should respond to Joshua he’s just going to overhype everything. I thought the hand shake example made sense and would agree that the author is over-generalizing this too much.

        Maybe it’s a west coast thing, but again I think ‘how are you’ can sometimes be a lot more and actually one of the things that I like best when I’m able to go back to the US is to engage in these types of pleasantries with people because they can often develop into more of a short conversation (or at least a nice exchange of smiles) if I (or they) want to be particularly friendly.

        I know the author mainly wants to help guard people against particular expectations about such things and the ‘how are you’ is definitely a good one to bring up, but I think the article is trying to be too representative.

        Interesting topic though for sure.

        • Joshua says:

          Yeah, well…those of us in the mountains of the East Coast know how flaky you folks from the West Coast can be. After all…you don’t even know how to reply to the right comments! You replied to my comment intstead of Mike/Mikey!

      • MITRA says:

        I disagree that hand shake is the only way to greet. It is folding of the palms and saying ‘namaste’ in the Indian Subcontinent and some of the East Asian countries like Thailand etc. and has been in vogue since time immemorial. Shaking hands is a recent phenomenon here for the last about 50 years or so.

  15. Andres says:

    I live in slovenija for a while know…. People here ask “kje si”, meaning leterally “where are you?”‘, though it’d be closer to a “what’s up?”.

  16. [...] type. You open up a little, they open up, WAY too much? You say something totally provocative like, “How are you?” and they respond with an endless litany of complaints. Complaints about how the coffee guy [...]

  17. Meg says:

    How one responds to the question “how are you?” does not have to be the same in every circumstance. As another poster pointed out, if you are asked this question by an anonymous server in a restaurant they are probably asking out of politeness and not expecting an honest response. If you reply with “Well actually I’m very depressed, my boyfriend cheated on me, my truck broke down and my dog just died” she’ll wonder what’s wrong with you. On the other hand, say you frequent the restaurant often and have had many friendly conversations with the server. You probably don’t want to start in with a litany of all your problems but, you might say “To tell the truth, I’ve been better”. To which she would respond “I’m sorry to hear that” (either A: she doesn’t want to know more or B: she is trying to respect your privacy by not asking for specifics). In either case, I would probably drop the conversation if she answers like that. She might say “Oh I’m sorry to hear that, what’s wrong? In this case I would tell her what happened but, being as she is just an acquaintance I would still keep it vague–Oh I’ve just had a run of bad luck since I broke up with Johnny….. leaving out all the messy details. If your best friend asks you how you are, you can feel free to divulge everything about your break up, your truck and your dog as they probably do care and would want to know. Americans really aren’t uncaring but, it’s true we are guarded about our privacy and don’t like to express our emotions in public–except on the internet where we will gladly confess more than you really want to know! In any case, if you’re in a situation where it’s confusing whether someone really wants to know how you are, you will NEVER be wrong by answering “Fine, and you”.

  18. [...] Culturally, using “how are you” so casually–or the concept of small talk altogether–is hard for foreigners in the United States or other English-speaking countries like Australia and England to understand. “After realizing what these great words of appreciation, care, and kindness mean in the U.S., one can feel a bit betrayed and resentful of their conversational partners, who suddenly seem superficial and insincere.” [...]

  19. Longhorns says:

    So the author almost burst out in laughter because he thought it was superficial and inferior to what they do in his country?

    Well, it’s so great that in Hungary they don’t ask superficial questions, since it seems you’re a bit too sensitive about this form of greeting. But, for you to “burst out laughing” because you feel it’s so inferior is ethnocentric.

    I’m sorry your culture is so black and white that you’re either a friend or a stranger (or enemy). Here is the U.S., you could be a friend, a good friend, a close friend, a best friend, or a party friend. We are aware that those we call “friends” are not always good friends, which means it’s not appropriate to over-share.

    If I was as ethnocentric as you, I would visit your country and burst out laughing at how needy and clingy your people are. But I’m not. I’m just passive-aggressive.

  20. clara says:

    Don’t over think the phrase. “How are you” is just another polite greeting. It’s almost the same as “Good morning” or “Have a good day.” Also, please remember that Americans can’t be defined with only a set list if words. Like all other counties, each citizen is unique. Being the type to not speak much is perfectly fine. Talking a whole bunch is fine too. Just please don’t stereotype them. Prejudice is as rude in America is as rude as in any other country.

  21. TC says:

    I disagree with the writer’s conclusion. Americans often share their true emotions with total strangers, such as a cashier, often.
    How are you is a way of being congenial and normal, and acknowledging another person’s existence.
    It all depends on who you are talking to. If a real friends asks this, then one often relates how one’s life is going at that time, or that one has been doing recently.
    You must be sensitive to the context of the question and this can be acquired with experience. Europeans often want cut and dry rules with everything, but this is not the case with English.

  22. MITRA says:

    I have been to many countries and greetings range from how are you to ‘isn’t it a fine morning” between perfect strangers. I have met people in trains who start by simple ‘that’s a fine book you are reading’ and end up sharing addresses. So branding people into stereotypes is neither here nor there. If you dont want to respond such say ‘hmm’ and it ends there. I have met US citizens who met me in my country (incidentally its India) just say ‘hi’. lets all be happy the way we greet!

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