A tough question

5 Jul 2021

I used to teach English to speakers of other languages. Ask any student of English “How are you?” and you’ll get a pat response: “Fine, thanks. And you?”. It was always quite a relief that it wasn’t until higher levels that we taught “How do you do?”: it's such a nonsensical question on paper – but by that stage, students were familiar with the notion that you just have to accept English ‘as it is’.

Many of you will remember the Whatsuppppp advertising campaign, where it was pretty well drummed into us that the response to “Whatsup” is “Wazzup”- the louder, the better. Long before the adverts, I had an American friend who used it as a greeting, and one day I asked him what he expected me to say when he asked it. He recommended we proceed as follows: “Whatsup?” -- “Not much.”

I wish someone would ask me “Wazzup"! I’ve been struggling along for a few months now, and I live in absolute fear of that seemingly simple question: “How are you?”

Of course, it’s lovely of them to ask! It’s asked - usually in a text message - by people who care. They care sufficiently and know enough of my life that I can’t get away with “Fine thanks, and you?”. Deprived of the standard way to negotiate this heartfelt enquiry, and unable to come up with anything along the lines of “Good, thanks”, I’ve tried all ways around it but they ask again. 

Cue quite a long pause where instant messaging will tell the other person: ‘Alice is typing…’ – hopefully they’ve put their phone down and put the kettle on because this is going to take a while.  ‘Alice is typing…’ I hope they are not going to judge how long it takes to come up with four words... better think of a few more. Scratch that. Start again. That'll do. Phew. Pulse racing. Send: "Not on top of the world, but OK. How about you?"

It’s inevitable that we’ll get to the point in a conversation where we will talk about whether or not each of us is OK. Am I alone in finding “How are you?" a demanding conversation opener? 

Perhaps it would be easier to answer something more binary like “Are you OK?” – you’ve got a few options there – yes, no, not sure, more or less, all the better for hearing from you.

I might start campaigning to resuscitate “How do you do?”. It’s starting to feel like a legitimate question, and of course, the standard response also makes perfect sense: “How on earth do you do?”


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