Hello everyone, welcome back to my weekly column!
This week, a student asked me, "Why do you always ask 'how are you?', even though it's evening?" I must admit, I was intially confused - I don't really think about this simple question when I say it.
Then I realised that I have been asked a similar question before. When I was at university, my flatmate was from Slovakia and one day she turned to me and said, "Why do British people always ask, 'how are you?' when they say hello, but not actually care about the answer?"
I think that I can answer both these questions with this answer (but I add that I don't know if this is unique to Britain, or even the English language!):
Asking "how are you?" are the beginning of a conversation is more about being polite than being curious. Don't get me wrong, I do want to know if you're happy/sad/hungry/etc., but adding "how are you?" after saying "hello" is more of an instinctive reaction - like saying "excuse me" after you walk into someone. It's just polite and usually an acceptable answer is simply to repsond, "Yeah I'm fine, thanks. How are you?" This is true regardless of the time of day.
"How are you?" is such an embedded part of greeting people in the UK that a very common (and informal) way of greeting someone is just to say "y'alright?" (are you alright?). You can respond to this simply with "y'alright". It's not really a question anymore and no "hello" needed.
I would love to hear your thoughts! Do any English speakers agree with this interpretation? Any non-native speakers ever been confused about this?
Initially = at first; at the beginning
Unique = not the same as anything else; one of a kind
Curious = wanting to know something
Instinctive reaction = done without thinking about it; like pulling your hand away from fire
Embedded = something placed firmly within a surrounding context/situation