I would love to hear comments on this, particularly from my non-British subscribers.
I met a Russian friend, last week. After the initial greeting and ambicheek kiss, I asked, “How are you?”
She told me about the state of her marriage, of her finances, or her job, and of her physical and mental health. Her answer took about ten minutes, during which I grew increasingly peevish, though I could not pinpoint the reason. It was not my friend’s fault. She was merely answering my question – a question I had asked of my own free will. Then, the penny dropped – I was too English.
Time and again, foreigners ask me, “When English people say, ‘how are you?’ do they really want to know?”
“So what should you answer?”
It’s an enquiry we make automatically, in conformance with the rules of elementary politeness. Your role is to answer, “Fine, thanks”. It is not an invitation for you to be rebellious, unconventional or creative. And especially not your cue to start disclosing the icky-sticky messy details of your uncontrollable life.
Obviously, we cannot generalise. There are occasions when people truly want to know how life is treating us. In those cases, they tend to pause in their tracks, hold your gaze, and wait for an answer. Research has yet to be done to produce exact percentages of genuine versus non-genuine instances. As a rule of thumb, I would say that there is on average as frequent sincere curiosity in “how are you?” as there is heartfelt contrition every time we say “sorry”.
“Hello” alone seems somehow naked. So we accessorise it with “how are you?” Every day, we pass colleagues on the stairs, and neighbours in the street. They smile and say, “Hello-how-are-you” apparently without punctuation. The sentence is rushed in a single breath. Sometimes, even the question mark is barely audible. More often than not, they continue walking as they say it, so the ‘hello’ comes towards you but the ‘how are you’ whooshes past you. Frequently, you need to spin around to answer “Fine, thanks” while the person is still within earshot.
Try adding, “and how are you?” and you will see puzzlement in his or her face, as though something is out of sync. Start elaborating on the kind of day you are having, and you are being downright disruptive.
Montesquieu believed that climatic conditions shape cultures and personalities. They certainly determine our needs and our longings. We strive for what we lack. The Moors, desert people, delighted in fountains, pools and luxuriating flowers they created in Southern Spain. The English are the product an unstable climate under turbulent skies. Summer can turn to winter within an hour, with a powerful gust of wind. Consequently, the English are creatures of habit who crave an orderly existence. When they ask “how are you?” they are seeking reassurance that all is well in their world, that there are no upheavals or crises to be tackled. Do not deny them that reassurance. Do not sow doubt in their calm-seeking minds. Just answer “fine, thanks” and watch their grateful smile.
I often wonder how people would react if we were to subsititute the compulsory question with a statement. Instead of “hello, how are you?”, we could say “hello, I hope you’re well”. It requires no answer, so no risk of demands on our time. Also, it frees the person from the awkward choice between lying and pouring out a magma of personal details.
I would really like to experiment this new form of greeting. Perhaps I could give up asking “how are you?” and not mean it, for Lent. Only, I am too English to break old habits.
Sometimes I say, “What’s new with you?” Then I get a real answer to a real question. But I tend to be an interviewer anyway.