Yesterday, while out shopping, I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in a while. “Oh, hi!” she said, with an enthusiastic grin, “How are you?”
I automatically answered: “Great! How are you?” And we launched into a quick catch-up chat.
Now, to Americans, there is nothing unusual about that first greeting. But in Britain, it would go something like this:
“Hey, you alright there?”
“Yeah, mustn’t grumble,” implying we both know full well that there’s a whole world of complaining and woe that could be unleashed, but I’m holding it back because we both know it wouldn’t do any good.
Americans don’t really want to know “how you are” and if you answer with anything other than “fine!” or “great!” they’ll be flummoxed. It took me years to figure that out; why do they keep asking me if they don’t really want to know?
In fact, if you bump into someone in the shops and don’t want to get stuck in a conversation, the fastest way to get rid of them is to answer their “Hey, how are you?” with something like “Well, actually, pretty awful; my dog is sick and the water heater crapped out again…” The other person will likely beat a hasty retreat. On the downside, the whole neighborhood will quickly peg you as a thoroughly unpleasant person. Unless that’s the image you’re going for, it’s better to just learn the correct response.
It’s actually really nice to assume you should always greet someone with a smile and “Yeah, I’m good!” But honestly, even after all these years, it still feels somehow dishonest.
It goes back to that Fundamental Differences thing; Americans are essentially optimistic, while Brits are quietly expecting the worst [Fundamental Differences: Britain vs USA].
I’m still working on it.
Reading this, it rang so true with what I’ve thought and what others have said. John Cleese had a great monologue about being British, and I thought of it immediately:
“Do you have any idea what it’s like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of, of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone ‘Are you married?’ and hearing ‘My wife left me this morning,’ or saying, uh, ‘Do you have children?’ and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see… we’re all terrified of embarrassment. That’s why we’re so… dead. Most of my friends are dead, you know, we have these piles of corpses to dinner.”