“How are you?”
The Meaning of Words
In many parts of the world, September is a transition month. Schools start, summer comes to an end, and daily routines resume. The changing season also brings new arrivals from foreign lands who may not be familiar with local greetings. “How was your summer?” or “How are you?” are common questions being heard in office hallways and school entrances, but what do such questions really mean across cultures?
While training a German engineer he once asked me, “Why do Americans ask ‘How are you?’ but then walk away without waiting for the answer?”
He also noticed how when he responded to the same question that his counterparts seemed a bit taken aback. He said, “I told one co-worker, ‘I have a headache,’ and got the feeling I had said something wrong.” By answering authentically he was hoping to deepen the relationship, but instead found his approach was having the exact opposite affect.
Another time someone asked how his weekend was and he started to talk about how his in-laws were in town and therefore it was a bit stressful. He said his co-workers looked surprised at his response, seemed to laugh nervously and went on their way.
Such moments are examples of how regardless of the fact that English may be someone’s native language, that doesn’t mean people are using their words impeccably from the perspective of a newcomer who speaks English as a second language. To the engineer, “How are you?” really meant, “I want to know how you are doing.” Here in the U.S. it simply means, “Hi.”
It was crazy to him that a person could have just found out they had a disease, had just tripped and fallen or had a fight with a loved one and regardless, “Fine thank you, how are you,” is still the response that is given and expected.
The engineer interpreted this as a sign of inauthenticity. He took his experiences one step further and then generalized to all U.S. Americans, as if an entire country could truly be inauthentic. I clarified that it was a matter of interpretation and not mal-intent. He reluctantly accepted this, but still scratched his head.
“So how do you know when someone really wants to know how you are doing?” He asked.
Answer: They will ask a follow-up question that is usually more specific. The below example between James and Peter illustrates this.
James: “How are you?”
Peter: “Fine thanks, how are you?”
James: “I’m fine. What did you do this weekend?”
And so the conversation continues versus simply drops off as a greeting like “Hi,” would. There are plenty of examples that we have discussed in past posts where the meaning of words may be a matter of cultural interpretation. For example:
“How are you?” can really mean “Hi.”
“Let’s do lunch!” can really mean “Nice to meet you.”
“Yes,” can really mean “Maybe.”
“Hai,” a common response word used in Japan, literally translates into “Yes,” but more likely means: “I hear you” or “I understand.” More than one U.S. American negotiator has fallen into the trap of thinking a deal was being made when it was simply being heard. According to a chat on Italki.com it can even mean a variety of things including: I have an opinion, I’m here, Sorry, Pardon, What, OK then, or Well.
So with the arrival of new parents and students at schools, new co-workers in the office and a new season around the corner, remember that if you don’t get the expected response you are looking for, literal translations of words may not translate into meaning. Digging deeper into intent based on culture may give a more accurate picture than just the words themselves.
And in the end, hopefully everything will be fine, thank you.