How are you?

English pleasantries: Part 1

This article is the first of two articles about important pleasantries used in English conversation.

 

Countless books about learning English will give you phrases that you can start a conversation with. And that’s fine. In those books you will learn, for example, to say things like, “Hi, Jim, how are the kids?” or “Have a nice day” or whatever. But unless you know why you are saying those particular phrases and in what exact situations they are called for, you’re never going to make the words your own.

 

So, with that in mind, let’s see if we can get deep inside one phrase -- that is, really understand it -- so we can make it our own. And the phrase I’m thinking of is this one: “How are you?”

 

“How are you?” is a phrase that Germans struggle with. That’s probably because “Wie geht es Ihnen?” carries a lot more weight. Most of the time, when someone asks you in German “Wie geht es Ihnen?” they really want to know, how are you?

Not always in English.

So what, then, do English speakers really mean when they say, “How are you?”? Well, the truth is they mean a lot of things.

Let’s now look at the phrase “How Are You?” in use for a better understanding of it. Here we go...

 

Caller 1: “Hi, is Jim there?”

Caller 2: “Yes, this is Jim. How can I help you?”

 

Caller 1: “Hi, Jim, it’s Ted from marketing...”

Caller 2: “Hi, Ted, how are you? What’s up?”

 

In this case, “How are you?” simply means, “Oh, it’s nice to hear your voice.” Caller 2, in fact, does not want to know how Caller 1 really is. It’s just a pleasantry.

Now let’s look at another example, this one involving three people talking.

 

Tammy: “John, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Mike.”

John: “OK, great. Hi Mike, I’m John.”

Mike: “Hi, how are you?”

 

In this case, the “How are you?” just means, “Nice to meet you.” Mike, in fact, does not truly care how John is. He just basically wants to say, “Nice to meet you.”

OK, so I know what you’re asking yourself. When does “How are you?” really mean, “How are you?”? Well, the answer is when the phrase is used in a more serious situation, one with more gravity. It all has to do with context.

Let’s have a look at such a situation.

 

Father: So your girlfriend will be gone for the whole summer in Africa and you won’t be able to contact her?

Son: Yeah.

Father: That’s pretty difficult.  

Son: I know.

Father: How are you?

Son: I’m OK, I guess. But I’m just going to miss her so much.

 

You see how utterly differentthis conversation is from the other two? The father really wants to know how his son is. And the son, for his part, answers honestly. It’s no longer about niceties; it’s about true feelings. Context is everything.

Truth be told, in the USA, we use the superficial “How are you” -- the one that could mean, “Nice to meet you,” “Nice to hear your voice” or simply “Hi” -- about 90 percent of the time. We save the real “How are you?” for times when we know the other person is really struggling.

So...now that you know all that, it’s probably good to know how to answer the superficial “How Are You?”

 

OK, if a colleague passing you in the hallway quickly asks you, “How are you?” and you are feeling good, this is how you could answer...

How are you?

--Fine, thanks.

--Great, you?

--Fine, and you?

--Can’t complain. And you?

 

OK, but what if things are not going that great? What do we say?

How are you?

--I’m OK, thanks.

--Uh...not too bad.

--I’m all right.

--I’m hanging in there.

 

But what if things are going really bad, like you just found out that a close family member has cancer. How could we answer? Here’s how:

How are you?

--Not so good.

--I’ve been better.

--Not good.

 

Granted, all that I have mentioned is not easy; there certainly is much nuance involved when it comes to “How are you?” But if you get more comfortable with the phrase and how to answer it, you’ll make it your own. And that’s really learning a language.

 

 

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