How’s it going?
What’s the story?
How are you?
How do you do?
What’s the craic?
We have so many ways to say hello, and they vary around the world. We were talking about this in class today (I had one of my infrequent teaching mornings) and it made me think again of the fact that though we have so many ways to greet someone, we actually don’t say hello very often.
If you ask anyone what the word means, they’ll tell you it’s a greeting. But when you think about it, that’s not really how we often use it. Sure, we use it on the phone, but how often do we use it to really greet someone we know? We almost always say it when we don’t know the person on the other end. It’s usually a bit distant and cautious. What we basically mean is Oh my God, who is this, why are you calling and am I in trouble? I hope this is a short, easy conversation!
We might use it at the beginning of a formal email to someone we don’t know and probably want something from, like a job.
But when was the last time you met your friends and warmly greeted them with a hearty hello?
When you don’t really think about it, you take it for granted that it’s such an everyday word. But it’d be interesting to make note of how often you use it in a day.
What fascinates me about the phrases we use instead is how warm and inviting they seem: How are you? How’s it going? We’re asking the person a question about them, inviting an answer from them. We want to know how they are!
But of course we don’t really want to know. How often do we use these phrases as actual questions? How are you? with a friend we’re concerned about, perhaps, but that’s about it. And even then our tone of voice makes it clear it’s a genuine question. Normally we’ll hear it from the cashier in the supermarket, or the telemarketer calling to ask if we want cheaper electricity. We might say I’m fine in reply but then it’s down to business. I do feel for learners of English who come to English-speaking countries and actually answer these questions until they realise the asker doesn’t actually care.
It seems to be such a common irony in the English language: the gap between the personal nature of the words we use and the actual intent of how we use them. It’s like we want to appear to be friendly and intimate, but don’t want to do the heavy lifting. We want to look like we’re genuinely communicating, but without really doing so. After all, in what other language could the correct response to the question How do you do? be How do you do?