Past Is Prologue

The History of Mind-Numbing Chitchat

How ‘How are you?’ (and other meaningless phrases) came to dominate conversations everywhere

Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images

“You see someone that you know and they ask you how are you, and you just have to say that you’re fine when you’re not really fine, but you just can’t get into it because they would never understand,” as Katy Perry once said in an interview that will likely haunt her for the rest of her life.

In fairness to Perry, she weaves a tale that most of us can probably identify with. Say you’re suffering from insomnia, your credit card got declined at the coffee shop this morning, and now your significant other has just sent an ominous “We need to talk” text. When a cheery co-worker asks “How are you?” in the break room, “Good, and you?” may feel like the least sincere answer you could give. Predictably, you give it anyway. The reason, however, is not necessarily that she would never understand your problems. “How are you?” is an example of a phatic expression; a word or phrase that serves as part of a social ritual. The term was coined by Bronislaw Malinowski in 1923 and refers to a vast number of questions and interjections you can expect to hear and say during your daily rigmarole, including “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “See you later.” It’s funny that the phrases we’re most keen to learn when we begin to study a new language are the ones that communicate little to no actual information.

Why is lying a routinized part of everyday conversation?

In her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, Gretchen McCulloch recounts an experiment she undertook as a peewee linguist in high school:

Moving through the hallways between classes, we’d normally call out to the people we saw every day, “Hi, how’s it going?” or “Hey, what’s up?” But I practiced giving the opposite response without skipping a beat. To “What’s up?” I’d answer, “Good, how’re you?” while to “How’s it going?” I’d say, “Not much, what’s up with you?” What surprised and delighted me every time is that people never seemed to notice.

McCulloch’s anecdote illustrates just how little the content of these exchanges often matters — as long as it hits the right beats. Malinowski points out that in phatic expressions there is an overwhelming preference for positivity — there’s no such word as “badbye,” for example — which is why a response like “I’m awful, what about you?” may be somewhat startling if not downright rude. Of course, there are situations in which total honesty may be more appropriate, such as a doctor’s visit; but even then, people are often hesitant to break the unwritten rules of phatic communion. An experiment conducted in 1992 showed that during the preamble to a medical assessment, participants were most likely to initially reply to the question “How are you?” with a stock answer (“I’m all right,” “Not too bad”) before elaborating and effectively contradicting themselves (“I do suffer with nerves, though,” “I had a bad day on Saturday”). Why can’t we just cut to the chase? Why is lying a routinized part of everyday conversation?

According to Joachim Grzega, although the phrase “How are you?” hasn’t always been in our lexicon, similar questions date back to the Middle English period (possibly earlier; attestations from the Old English period aren’t rich enough to know for sure). In Layamon’s Brut, a poem written around 1205, a knight asks King Arthur, “Hu beoð þine beouste?” — literally: “How is your life condition?” Shakespeare’s plays offer some less clinical alternatives, such as “How cheerest thou?” (The Merchant of Venice), “How is ’t, my soul?” (Romeo and Juliet), and the short and sweet “How now!” (Othello). The phrase “How are you?” begins to emerge in 19th-century literature, perhaps beginning with Jane Austen’s Emma (1816). It’s during this same century that you’ll find something interesting happening to “How are you?” as well as its older cousin “How do you do?” — take a look at these extracts from two novels by Charles Dickens:

“How are you?” said one. “How are you?” returned the other. (A Christmas Carol, 1843)

“How do you do this morning?” said Mr. Carker the Manager, entering Mr. Dombey’s room soon after his arrival one day: with a bundle of papers in his hand. — “How do you do, Carker?” said Mr. Dombey, rising from his chair, and standing with his back to the fire. (Dombey and Son, 1848)

In both cases, the phatic expression is treated as a greeting, not a question. To use Grzega’s terminology, what we’re seeing here is not a “complementary formula” (a call and a response) but a “copy formula.” “How do you do?” stayed this course and over time shrunk to “Howdy,” which today can be used in place of “Hello” (if you’re a Texan prospector). In some formal settings, you may still hear “How do you do?” being used, but it has the same ring to it as “Nice to meet you.” For some reason, however, the same is not true of “How are you?” In modern English, to reply to “How are you?” by parroting the question would be a jarring breach of normal etiquette.

“How do you do Miss Havisham?” Photo: Herbert Watkins/Wikimedia Commons

Because the practice of inquiring about our interlocutor’s well-being has been around for so long in English, you might assume that it’s a cultural universal. Not so. In many East Asian cultures, “Have you eaten yet?” is a common overture to a conversation, and the addressee is not obliged by convention to answer one way or the other. In Navajo, a friendly interaction will often begin with the word Áá’”, which literally means “Open up,” giving the person free rein to decide what subject to talk about. Additionally, there is a language in which phatic expressions are nonexistent: According to linguist Daniel Everett, the Pirahã language, spoken by the eponymous Amazonian tribe, is completely devoid of phrases like “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and, indeed, “How are you?” Everett considers phatic communion to be a form of “social grooming,” a vestige of a bygone era when we used to sit around picking through each other’s hair for lice. In fact, the Pirahã still do groom each other in the literal sense — maybe this is why they have no need to do it verbally.

Conversations are strange creatures. Some are instantly forgettable, like the series of grunts you exchange with your housemates while boiling your morning pot of tea; others are life-affirming opportunities to discover another person’s inner world and, moreover, to better understand ourselves. Most of them, however, are bookended by the same preordained assemblages of words, always in the same order (unless, of course, you’re singing a certain Beatles song). Formalities help us find a point of reference, even a sense of safety — think about how you go through them like a checklist (“Good afternoon, nice to meet you, thank you for inviting me”) at the beginning of a job interview. We’ll probably never do away with phatic expressions like these nor should we. But the “How are you? Fine, and you? Fine!” ritual is a strange and — as we’ve seen — unnecessary player in this cast. As a recent Atlantic article suggests, perhaps the time has come to update the question to one which doesn’t demand a positive answer, such as “What’s on your mind?” That way, every conversation can start off on the right foot: with an incitement to say what you really feel.

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature.

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