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How NOT to Respond to an American Greeting in English

Lindsay: This is an All Ears English Podcast, Episode 66, “How NOT to Respond to an American Greeting in English.”

Gabby: Welcome to the All Ears English Podcast, where you’ll finally get real, native English conversation. Now here are your hosts, Lindsay McMahon, the ‘English Adventurer’ and Gabby Wallace, the ‘Language Angel,’ coming to you from Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Lindsay: In this episode, you’ll find out why the question “Hi. How are you?” is more about culture than language.

Lindsay: Hey Gabby. How are you?

Gabby: I’m fine.

Lindsay: Gabby. You always say you’re just fine or you’re doing fine, you’re doing great. (I mean) why don’t you ever say how you’re actually doing. Like give me some real information here. I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall.

Gabby:

What do you mean Lindsay? It’s just a greeting. You really wanna (want to) know how I’m feeling?

Lindsay:

Yeah.

Gabby:

You really wanna (want to) know what’s going on in my life?

Lindsay:

Well to be honest, I’m just a little confused. I just – I don’t know why, (you know), in the US, whenever, (you know), we ask someone how they’re doing, there’s just a blanket response. “I’m fine.” Gabby:

Yeah.

Lindsay:

“I’m doing well. I’m doing great.”

Gabby:

Yeah. Well this was actually the topic of a really interesting article that came out, (um), a month or two ago, the “How Are You Culture Clash” by Alina Simone in the (um) OP-ED section of the New York Times. So… Lindsay:

Yeah. Great article.

Gabby:

…we’re referring to that article, we thought it would be really interesting for you guys because when we ask “How are you?” it’s really just like a greeting. It’s like “Hello.” Right?

Lindsay:

Right. It’s really a greeting. We don’t expect a true in-depth response. We don’t wanna (want to) know that someone in your family has cancer or that you just got a promotion in your job.

Gabby:

Right.

Lindsay:

We don’t really want to know those details.

Gabby:

It’s not really asking “How are you?” (I mean), if, if the person you’re talking to really wants to know how you’re feeling or really wants to know what’s going on in your life, they might add something like “No, really, how are you?” Lindsay:

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And you might be sitting down with that person for coffee or you might be in their home in the right context.

Gabby:

Yeah. They’ll ask more detailed questions too like “How is your job? Or “How is your family?”

Lindsay:

Right. And if you know that person a little bit better, they’re more likely to ask you that. So when you’re just passing someone on the street or in the hallway, don’t really expect to go into so much depth. And a lot of people think that this is fake. Is this fake?

Gabby:

No, it’s not fake because the way that this greeting works is it’s just a salutation. It’s just a greeting. It’s not fake because the purpose of the question is not to find out what’s really going on in your life or your family.

It’s just like “Hello.”

Lindsay:

Yeah. And I think it really goes back to the cultural value of privacy in American culture. (You know) that’s something that a lot of Americans really value. Not everyone, but, (you know), for me personally, in my experience, I’m not going to tell you that, for example, my mom has cancer. She doesn’t, don’t worry. But if she did… Gabby:

Just an example.

Lindsay:

…something like that – I’m not going to tell you that my brother’s about to have a kid.

Gabby:

Right.

Lindsay:

Actually that’s true.

Gabby:

Oh. Wow.

Lindsay:

But I’m not going to tell you that, (um), if I don’t know you that well.

Gabby:

Right. I think it goes back to privacy and time too because we really value time and if you’re just stopping to say a quick “Hello. How are you?” like a greeting, you really don’t expect to spend the time hearing about everything that’s going on in the other person’s life. So it can be a bit unexpected if I say “Hey Lindsay. How are you?” and then you tell me all these things about your family. I’m (like) “Okay, that’s interesting, but I gotta go (I’ve got to go) now.” Lindsay:

Right. That’s awkward because at that point, you actually need to respond and engage, but… Gabby:

Exactly.

Lindsay:

…you didn’t plan to do that and I know that in other cultures, that’s not the case. (I mean) you really… Gabby:

Take your time.

Lindsay:

…might be more likely to go into depth about your situation when you get that question.

Gabby:

Yeah. This is true if you know someone or you don’t know someone that well. (I mean) really just use “How are you” as (like) a quick greeting. And (um) just to add one last thing, (you know), another way not to respond. (Um), (you know) we said don’t say too much information about your, your job, life, family, but also, (you know), don’t say, “Oh, I’m, I’m really bad. I’m having a horrible day.” Because that forces the other person to ask “Oh! What, what’s wrong?’ Lindsay:

Right. Right.

Gabby:

Right. And then you have to take the time to talk about the things going on in your life, and your family, and your job, or whatever, so….

Lindsay:

And that also goes back to American culture – often, (uh) there’s a tendency towards optimism… Gabby:

Right.

Lindsay:

…(uh) the positive aspect, showing the good side of yourself.

Gabby:

Yeah.

Lindsay:

(Um), I think it all comes back to culture which is really interesting.

Gabby:

Yeah, totally. So I know in some English textbooks, (you know), they’ll teach you how to say “Oh, I’m good.” “I’m so, so” or “I’m bad.” But we don’t really use those last two. You just… Lindsay:

Yeah.

Gabby:

(You know).

Lindsay:

Yeah. You really wouldn’t. I really wouldn’t say “Oh I’m not doing so well.” Gabby:

Yeah.

Lindsay:

Unless, (you know)…

Gabby:

Unless you really need to talk.

Lindsay:

…Unless it’s an extreme situation and, yeah, that would either be an indication that you don’t want to talk to the person, you want them to ignore you or that you really need to talk to the person.

Gabby:

Yeah.

Lindsay:

But if we’re talking about just encounters, (you know), on the street, or in the hallway, just go with the “I’m doing all right.” “I’m doing well.” “Doing great.” “Doing fine.” Gabby:

Yeah. Trust us. It’s normal to give a quick “I’m good.” Lindsay:

Yeah. That’s great. This is a really interesting topic. So (uh) thanks for joining us today guys.

[Instrumental]

Gabby: Thanks for listening to our podcast 35,000 times a day. You guys are listening like crazy. Now if you wanna (want to) just listen, that’s okay, butif you want to really improve your English, come get the transcripts. You can find them at allearsenglish.com/conversations. And it’s the perfect way to improve your English instantly and connect with Lindsay and myself to ask questions.

Lindsay: If you like to put your ears into English with Lindsay and Gabby, be sure to subscribe to the podcast audio in iTunes for free on your computer or on your Smartphone. Thanks for listening to the All Ears English Podcast. See you next time.

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