A young French woman on an exchange program in New York walked into a clothes store on Fifth Avenue one afternoon. A salesperson greeted her with, “How are you today?”
“I was shocked!” she told me, a day later.
“Why is that so shocking?” I asked.
“But that lady doesn’t know me! Why does she want to know how I am?!”
“Did you answer her?” I asked.
“I could say nothing!” she said. “I ran out the door.”
Being asked “How are you?” is a topic of some concern among certain expatriates and visitors to New York. In their eyes, why should a salesperson, concierge, casual colleague, or restaurant wait person care how you are? The answer is, they don’t!
That is, they are not asking a personal question. The phrase “How are you?” in those contexts (as opposed to with friends and family) is simply a greeting, or another way of saying, “Hello.”
In the United States, asking how you are is simply a friendly way to acknowledge the other person. All you have to answer is two words, like: “Fine, thanks!”
When spoken between strangers, no one expects a long or truthful story to the question. And by keeping your reply short, simple, and positive, no further questions will be asked.
In contrast, a negative response, like “Well, not too good, actually,” could surprise the person asking and she might feel compelled to answer, “I’m sorry; what’s wrong?” – thus prompting the very situation you wanted to avoid!
A French businessman said that in France, people give negative responses all the time and are met with sympathetic replies, like: “Yes, life is like that,” and other variations. That, however, is a cultural difference between our countries — and something to be conscious of.
The next time you sit down in a restaurant and the wait person greets you, you can practice your English — as well as your new cultural knowledge — in an exchange that might go like this:
“Hi folks! How are you today?”
“Fine, thanks! (You can also add, “and you?”)
Converse as much as you want after that – but your privacy will remain intact.