Hi, how are you?
“Hi, how are you?” is a common greeting. “Fine, thanks – How are you?” is the default answer. Yet, is this really the truth, is that to #Saywhatis?
In 2012 I experienced my first semester abroad in Australia, an English speaking country. I soon got really confused by the way people greeted me. Whether it was the supermarket cashier, friends passing by while I was on my way to some place, people at parties and get-togethers – the way to greet was always “Hi, how are you?”
At first I just answered honestly, saying how I felt, but soon I realised that nobody is really interested in the answer. This realization upset me. Why would someone ask a personal question when he or she is not actually interested in hearing the answer?
I was upset, but I was also exhausted by telling everyone how I was doing and by tailoring my answers to the situation. I learned to understand that for them this question was nothing more than a standard greeting. I couldn’t help but slowly adopting “Fine, thanks” as a default answer, following with a pointless “And how are you?”.
In 2013, I moved to Leiden (NL) for my Master and joined an international environment where the way of greeting was not much different. I have been trying for years to accept that asking people how they are doing is just a greeting, and yet I still don’t feel at ease with this custom. When a supermarket cashier or a friend passing by ask the question, I feel okay with replying the default answer or a simple “Hi”. In those situations it is clear they are not expecting an honest and detailed answer. However, there are situations where I feel uncomfortable, like when a close friend greets me with “How are you?“ in a situation where I cannot reply properly. For example, when I arrive at a party or a dinner, and even before I get the chance to take off my shoes and my jacket, someone prompts me how am I doing. To me, this kind of situation feels like a violation and a lack of respect of my needs. While I know they mean well and are actually interested in the answer, I feel they don’t give me the chance to reply properly, causing a struggle between the need to take a breath after entering the door and updating my friend about my life.
I asked myself what the difference was with respect to when I lived in Austria. I realised that back then I used to greet friends by saying “Hi, great to see you!”. Then I would take my time to take off my coat. We would then start doing whatever we had planned to do, until a moment when we’d just naturally begin to update each other, often even without asking how we were doing. If I bumped into a friend on the street we would express our happiness to see each other, but would only ask about how we were doing if there was enough time to answer. On the phone was the only situation I greeted someone with “Hi, how are you?” Yet, I was always curious about the answer.
I accept that I cannot change the way we greet each other, but I am hoping to bring more awareness into the deep meaning of this personal question. The next time a close friend asks me how I am doing in a situation where I don’t feel comfortable replying, instead of struggling to answer I will simply say that I will reply as soon as I am ready to.
Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 8th June 2022
Comment by Sandra Wittmann
Uploaded on 14th June 2018
I totally agree with being overwhelmed or upset about this different greeting ritual. I had similar experiences abroad and at the beginning I was very confused too when the cashier asked me about how I am while scanning bread and sweets. Please don’t get me wrong – I love getting to know as many cultures as possible and I want to know how people behave and act in different ways. It is fascinating. But this confusion really bothered me because it made me realise why I have problems with it in a greater sense. Let’s be honest: This way of asking a personal question without caring about the answer can be perceived as quite superficial. And I guess, there are many people who have problems with superficiality (e.g. small talk).
Some people told me that I take things very personal or far too serious. I deal with that many times and try very hard to not analyse or take every word or comment I hear seriously. But I do. I do it because when I speak I do mean it literally. I don’t talk just for the sake of talking. I mean every word I say. Some are wisely chosen, others are spoken from heart. But I will never speak to drown silence or to fill empty air. If I have nothing to say I keep silent. I can stand silence. And why should I talk to please somebody? That’s also why I’m not interested in buttering someone up or manipulating people to like me. Everything I say is meant honestly and truthfully. That’s how I am. That’s how my brain works. Or perhaps I don’t get sarcasm or jokes, who knows? No, for the records, I do understand jokes, I love to laugh. But there are differences between a real joke and thoughtless babble and “I don’t know what to say, but I have to say something at least”. I do not get those superficial silcence-fillers because they actual have no meaning at all. And that’s the reason why I have issues with the superficial “how are you” and comments made by people who actually “didn’t really mean that” or “were just joking”.
Since I think and act that way I assume people behave similarly which (of course!) is very wrong. I hope that doesn’t sound harsh. I know many caring people who also like to jabber about meaningless things or just don’t think about their words they choose to say. Still, they care about their enviroment or at least their closer friends. A lot people get along with that very well but I don’t. I just can’t. It makes no sense for me. I’m not good at meaninglessness and that’s the reason why I’m confused when a stranger asks me “How are you” or when I, again, take every comment literally and seriously.