British, Culture

Understanding A British "How Are You?"

We were once again in the dizzying climes of Cornwall, England over the summer and obviously we came in to contact with a lot of British people. This summer I consciously observed British behaviour (don’t worry, nothing creepy, just a casual-in-passing kind of mental note when I saw a custom or habit more than once. You see the longer I live away from Britain the more neutral I can be when I go back. And, quite frankly, the more “British” British people seem to me.

Take “How are you?” as an example. An innocent question for sure, but one that turns out to be very British indeed.

During the summer we were staying in one of eight cottages so there were plenty of other guests around too. On many a morning a fellow guest would walk by our cottage with a genuine smile, saying, “Good morning. How are you?” Friendly. Pleasant. A nice greeting to start the day. However, it was a fly-by question. By the time they had got to the end of the sentence they would actually be long gone, completely out of view around the corner or attending to their recycling in the barn. I realised it’s a question requiring no answer. It’s a way of saying, “Hope all is okay but if it isn’t I don’t need to hear about it.”

In the eyes of a Brit there isn’t anything much worse than casually asking ‘How are you?” as a greeting and someone actually launching in to a long diatribe about their achey knees, how their day got off to a terrible start thanks to an exploding coffee machine and how the rest of the day isn’t looking too bright either. Telling a Brit about your woes is just not done, even if they enquire about your health.

When a Brit asks you how you are you say fine. Nothing more. It’s a rhetorical question. Don’t share how you actually are. We’re not actually that interested. It’s us being polite.

Unless…. unless we are actually, genuinely interested and we are having a conversation with you. For example, we do care about how life is going for our friends, family and those with any significant relationship in our lives. On the contrary, if we don’t actually know you, then the question is merely politeness.

Still not clear? Try this. If you, for example, are checking in to a hotel and the person behind the reception desk asks “How are you today?” you do not relay every detail of your horrific car journey along the M25 and what it has done to your nerves. You do not share the epic state of the pounding in your head, how tired you are and how you really just want to have a lie down before dinner. You say, “I’m fine thank you. How are you?” As a response you can expect a “Very well, thank you.” Then you can check in. The hotel worker doesn’t know you. He doesn’t need or want to know the ins and outs of your personal life. This applies to shop workers, customer service workers and officials. In short, if you don’t know a person you answer “How are you?” with “Fine, thank you.”

However, if your British friend asks how you are after you landed in hospital after falling under a car (for example) then she genuinely wants to know how you are. Then it is perfectly acceptable to lay it on as thick as you like. Describe your injuries, the pain you suffered, how bloody awful you feel. She cares. She wants to know. If she addresses the same question to the stranger entirely wrapped in plaster-cast in the hospital bed next to you, their only acceptable answer is “Fine, thank you.”

Easy right?

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6 thoughts on “Understanding A British "How Are You?"”

  1. So true Amanda. I was confused for a long time when people would say “Alright?” which means “How are you?” but the polite I don't really want to know how you are How are you. I also never knew how to respond to “Alright?” but now I know all you have to do is say “Alright” back. BUT, I can't ever actually do it because it seems and sounds so unnatural to me so I end up asking them how they are which then tends to make them paranoid and run away from me!!

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  2. I was so used to the “hey, how are you” said as a greeting while passing by without as much as slowing down that I ended up being quite surprised when I used the same phrase with my German neighbors. My “wie geht es dir?” was usually the start of a long conversation that included storytelling and quite a bit of personal information. Not what I expected but helped me to get to know people πŸ™‚

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  3. Guess it is an English language thing. We Americans ask the same “greeting” question and get such answers as “fine”, “well”, and “good.” Last evening at a local meeting, I said “Good Evening” to a stranger and he said “Fine, thank you.” So most folks don't even listen to what you say to them. πŸ˜‰ Glad to hear you are doing so well in Nederland. Linda@Wetcreek Blog

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  4. Irish people answer the question “How are you” by “How are you”…How confusing is that?! Most of the time they just pass by and don't wait for an answer, but if you have to give one, it's usually “Grand” or “Not too bad” or a “how are you” back!

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  5. The standard reply to 'How are you?' in Yorkshire is “Oh, musn't grumble”. The ritual response to this is “If you did, no-one would listen”. Thus all is made right with the world, and both parties are satisfied that their injustices, while present, are tolerable.

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  6. Meg – I wouldn't respond with “alright?” either …. doesn't sound natural to me. I just say “yes, you?” and if the respondent answers correctly they say 'Yes” back. Then we're done. πŸ˜‰

    Ilze – shows how cultures differ… and indeed a great accidental way of getting to know people πŸ™‚

    Linda – that is indeed the case so often – we just hear a greeting, mutter ok and that's it! I think the German way may be slightly more friendly if I hear Ilze!

    Anne – I love the use of “grand”. I worked for years with an Irish girl and I loved asking how she was jsut to hear her say 'I'm grand, just grand'. Wonderful!

    Dave – you made me laugh! Fabulous exchange!!
    πŸ™‚

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