ENID, Okla. —
Hi, how are you?
How many times a day do we say these words as a way of greeting someone? Not too many to count, but certainly too many to remember.
It’s a way of being polite, cordial, friendly.
There are many variations on this theme. “What’s up,” for instance, which can be shortened to “whassup,” or for the chronically lazy, simply “sup?”
Hawaiian pidgin has given us the greeting, “howzit,” a derivative of the phrase how’s it going?
In Spanish, you say “como estas,” in French it is “comment allez-vous.” It is “come stai,” in Italian, in German you say “wie geht es dir,” while the Japanese greet each other by saying “o genkidesu ka.”
How are you? We ask each other that question every day, in any number of different fashions, but the larger question looms — do we really want to know?
I’m always tempted to say, “Well, I have this pain right here,” and precede to bore the pants off person who asked the question with my litany of aches and infirmities.
I know a guy who answers truthfully. If he’s doing well, he’ll tell you. If not, he’ll tell you that, too. It is, I have to admit, refreshingly honest, if a bit off-putting.
The fact that Americans don’t really want a truthful answer when we ask someone else, “How are you?” can be very confusing to folks in other countries.
A blog posted on the Voice of America website, called “The Student Union,” advises foreign students in the U.S. that when an American says “How are you?” the expected answers are “fine,” or the long version, “fine, how are you?”
“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,” writes the blog post’s author, known only as Zita. “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.”
Zita goes on to explain to foreign students studying here that, while Americans are known for being friendly and informal, we also prefer to keep an emotional distance from other people, friend or stranger alike.
Americans are a people united by our individuality. We value self-reliance.
Merely answering “fine” to the question “How are you?” may be more an indication of our own reticence to display any kind of weakness than it is our desire to build a wall between ourselves and others.
Besides, we’re so busy we really don’t have time to listen to you explain how you really are.
Alas, in today’s society, “How are you?” is just one of a series of meaningless phrases we use nearly every day.
“Let’s do lunch,” is another. I’ve done many things in my life, but never lunch. I have skipped lunch and eaten lunch, I’ve even had lunch and enjoyed lunch, but I’ve never done lunch. If anyone ever said “Let’s do lunch,” to me, my first inclination would be to answer, “Let’s don’t,” or, “Just what do you propose we do with it?”
Not only is the phrase grammatically incorrect, but it’s largely insincere. Hardly anybody ever follows up, at least with me.
“Let’s take a meeting,” is a phrase that also grates on me. Meetings can be organized, endured, attended, or simply, had, but not taken.
Frankly, I’d like to take most meetings I am required to be party to and banish them to a place where the sun doesn’t shine.
How about, “It is what it is.” What in the heck does that mean, anyway? What if it is what it isn’t. And just exactly what is it? This is the perfect example of speaking without really saying anything.
When someone begins a narrative by saying, “Let me start at the beginning,” my inclination is to say, “No, I’d prefer you start much closer to the end.”
The phrase, “At the end of the day,” has come into vogue of late. “At the end of the day,” this will happen or that will occur. I can say with certainty that at the end of the day, which can only mean the instant before the clock strikes midnight, thus beginning another day, I’ll be sound asleep, blissfully drooling on my pillow.
“Have a nice day.” When the kid behind the counter at the fast food joint or the lady running the cash register at the retail store sends me off with “Have a nice day,” I really hope they mean it, but I have my doubts.
That said (another empty phrase), at the end of the day, it is what it is.
Oh, and have a nice day, but first, tell me, how are you?
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.