‘How are you?’ or: Never trust your mental lexicon

Written by Jana, our quintilingual researcher.

When I first encountered an American, he asked me how I was. He was lucky that he met me on a good day, because I could simply answer that I was fine.

In Germany, where I’m from, you would ask someone how she is only if you are genuinely interested in an answer and actually have time to listen to it. That’s because there is always the possibility that the person answering the question will tell you a story. A story about how come she’s so miserable. A story about how everything went wrong from the start. Or a story about why she became so happy after she changed her life.

German verbal culture is a very direct one, so if you don’t want to hear the answer, please don’t ask.

i'm fine

Anyhow, my American counterpart didn’t seem to listen to my answer anyway. Only after a couple more meetings with him, and other Americans, did I come to realise that ‘How are you?’ acts only as a mere greeting for them, rather than an actual question. So after a while, I added ‘How are you?’ as a greeting to my cultural mindset.

When I spent a semester abroad in Japan, I used ‘How are you?’ as a casual greeting for my friends until they explained that ‘no one would ask this question every day’. Instead, it’s an option for a greeting when you haven’t seen someone in a while. Even then, you wouldn’t expect a genuine answer.

So I made another addition to my mental lexicon.

When I moved to the UK over a year ago, I expected the people here to be a bit like the Americans. In school they taught us that ‘How are you?’ is considered a greeting, and my experiences proved that it is, indeed, just that. Not a question, just a phrase. However, when I didn’t reply to people asking me the appears-to-be-one-but-is-not-actually-a question, they stared at me as if they expected an answer!

So I started observing people and figured out that, actually, an answer was expected here. Luckily, I observed people very closely before using my German approach to answering this seemingly normal question.

That’s how I found out that the British are using ‘How are you?’ as a mixture of the American and the Japanese approach. Yes, it is a greeting and yes, you do have to answer it. But please, don’t be honest about it. Simply answer ‘I’m fine. Thank you,’ and the world will keep on turning.

Lesson learnt: Don’t trust direct translations. And never underestimate the importance of other cultures’ mental lexicons.

If you speak five languages well, and you’re interested in adding brand languages to your repertoire, email Chris.