When a question isn’t a question

Why do Americans ask you how you are when they don’t really want to know how you are? When a U.S. native travels abroad and greets people with a breezy “How are you,” the unsuspecting European, African, Asian, or South American will try to answer the question as if it were real. That could lead to a serious communication snafu

If you’ve been in the U.S. for a while, you’ve figured out that “How are you?” is a greeting, pure and simple. It doesn’t require a real response, beyond “fine.” In fact, any other response is typically unwanted and unwelcome. 

I must confess that I dislike the “How are you” phenomenon. Something in me wants to answer the question truthfully. Aren’t people curious about others? Don’t they care? Don’t they want to connect a bit more meaningfully? 

The answer is no, at least not in the context of a casual greeting. But if they know you, and they happen to run into you at the bank or on the subway, they might ask: “Hey, how’s the family? Or: “Where are you going this summer? Any plans?” These are real questions, not fake ones. By all means, answer them, and feel free to ask questions of your own! 

When a casual friend or colleague asks: How’re you doing, what’s happening, how’ve you been, or how’s it going, just say something generic in reply. Choose your answer from the following list of expressions, or come up with something comparable: 

Fine, and you?
Great, and how about you?
Excellent, thanks!… 

or pretty good, terrific, wonderful, or any other upbeat adjective, even if it doesn’t represent the true state of your mood, health, love life, or finances. 

Who’s doing the asking? 

As usual, there’s always a “but”! When a friend asks how you are, he may really want to know how you are! On a good day, you might respond: “Great—I’ve got a job interview this week. I’ll call you over the weekend and tell you all about it!” On a bad day, don’t feel you have to dissimulate. Real friends care about each other in good times and bad, so feel free to be candid if you’re going through a tough time. The trick is to recognize who your real friends are! 

So don’t be confused or offended by this strange question that isn’t a question. Accept it for what it is: as a greeting, no different from “Hello!” But when a good friend asks it, it can be a real question that calls for a real answer. Take your cue from his facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. 

Which of the following do you think is a simple greeting? Which is a real question?

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