How are you?

July 31, 2009



“Hello, how are you?” 

Do you get asked this or end up asking this when you are speaking in an English setting before a conversation actually begins?  Did your boss tell you to use this to greet your English-speaking clients?  Were you told that this is a polite gesture?  Do you use this as a conversation starter in English?

In fact, greetings are the most common speech act in any language.  Especially in an English business setting, one should observe the appropriate convention of greeting others to be polite and to build relationships.  “Hello/Hi, how are you?” is the most common salutation spoken by English speakers but is a rhetorical question.

When speaking in English and if asked this question, one should understand that the usage of this phrase is so common as a conversation starter that its actual meaning has become rather trivial, even though it is an expression of care.  When faced with this question, the listener needs to respond with “fine”, “well”, or “good” (or other similar variations, such as “very well”, see below) and nothing more (except maybe a “thank you” afterwards) and then ask back the same question, which then elicits a similar response.  Indeed, English speakers do not usually deviate from this speech act by responding that one is “not so well” and giving a long explanation unless both speakers already have an established relationship.  When two strangers meet for the first time, both would follow this conventional speech act because such a deviation would bewilder the listener.    

Note that one could also add a “good morning/good afternoon/good evening” in front of the “how are you” greeting.

In other languages the above convention may be different.  In Chinese, for example, speakers express “hello” somewhat differently.  While the Chinese language also has an expression similar to the English phrase, “Hello, how are you?”, specifically 你好嗎? (Pinyin: Ní hăo ma?), this phrase is not used in speech, but rather reserved for written correspondences as it is considered rather formal and may be a bit intrusive if asked in speech as questions are usually answered sincerely in Chinese.  Instead, Chinese speakers would only say 你好! (Pinyin: Ní hăo!), which when translated directly means “You are well!”  When two people meet, both speakers say this same expression to greet one another to wish the other good fortune.  Chinese’s strong belief in fortune and luck probably has some influence here.  When one probes to receive a longer and more sincere response about the health of the other person, one would say 你最近好嗎? (Pinyin: Nĭ zuì jìn hăo ma?), which directly translates to “How are you recently?”  In turn, the other person would, most often, respond back with a synopsis of his or her recent affairs. 

As can be seen, no matter the language, greetings require both the greeter and the informant to cooperate with one another.  In order to do this, one must understand the conventional expectations of an expression in order to respond appropriate and to convey politeness.  An appropriate response allows one to “fit in” to the culture of the same language speakers. 

When learning English, or any other language, besides focusing on the meaning of an expression, one should also learn the appropriate situational contexts of usage.  Even the simplest and most basic phrase- the salutation- could be rather complex. 

Here are some variations to the above mentioned greetings, which could be interchanged:


Question                                      Response

Hello, how are you (today)?          Fine, thank you, and you?

Hi, how are you?                           Good, how are you? (the ‘you’ is stressed)

How are you doing?                      I’m well/I’m fine/I’m okay/I’m good.

How is it going? (informal)             I’m doing alright/I’m doing well, and you?

How’s everything (lately)?             Very well, thank you (for asking). How about you?

How is everything (with you)?       Alright/Pretty well/Quite well/Pretty good/

                                                     Good/Good, good  

How do you do? (not common amongst Americans)