“How are you?”
This was an actual exchange between two students sitting at my table in the dining hall. When I heard it, I 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.
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 subtly 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.
This story was updated December 14, 2016.