Sound less like a robot when asking someone how they are (and replying) by learning some alternative phrases.
It is usual practice and polite in English to follow up a greeting (such as ‘hello’, ‘hi’ or ‘good morning’) with a ‘how are you?’ type question.
Unlike other cultures, you do not have to particularly know this person very well, or at all, to ask how they are. It is not considered being too familiar.
Often it is little more than a convention to get out of the way at the start of the conversation, and not much importance is attached to it.
If people ask, ‘how are you?” they often don’t expect you to reply, ‘well I’ve got a bad back and I’ve been feeling a bit depressed lately’. A brief ‘I’m OK and you?’ is what they’re usually expecting!
Because of this, many people learning English are just taught a standard formula: ‘how are you?’, ‘I’m fine, thanks and you?”
The trouble is, this can sound very monotonous and insincere if you repeat these same words each time – and you may be missing an opportunity to enhance your relationship with the other person or start off a conversation.
Other ways of asking ‘how are you?’
After wishing “Good day”, traditionally people in Britain would pose the question ‘how do you do?’
The answer to this was pretty straightforward. You simply would reply ‘how do you do’ too!
Today, you are not limited to one or two polite formulas, you have a range of options to try out.
There is a phrase in English ‘variety is the spice of life’. Which means it is a lot more interesting if we do things differently from time to time.
So instead of inquiring, ‘how are you?’ you could try, ‘how are you doing?’ This is a bit more friendly way of asking the same question to a friend or someone you know quite well.
You could also use, ‘are you well?’
Like with everything, most of the meaning is in the intonation rather than the words. However, expressed well, this phrase could communicate that you care a little bit more. It is also quite direct and often seeks a positive and short answer! It can therefore be useful in business contexts with existing acquaintances.
If you are quite familiar with the other person, you could opt for a less formal ‘you alright?’, which usually elicits a ‘yes I’m alright, thanks’ reply.
‘How’s things?’ is another variant that you can use for a friend, which is a bit more open and invites the other person to be a bit more honest.
To set the conversation on a more positive and upbeat tone, you could alternatively query, ‘how’s it going?’ It is difficult to reply negatively to that!
If you haven’t seen someone for a long time that you appreciate (or want it to seem like you appreciate them!), you could come up with a ‘how have you been?’ or better still, ‘how have you been doing?” A pat on the back or on the shoulder may also reinforce your sincerity!
But, what if it’s a real friend who you haven’t seen for a long time? Well in such a case you could even scream, ‘how the hell are you?!’ or ‘how the devil are you?!’
Certain situations may though require you to adapt your method of interrogation. If someone’s been very ill or had a death in the family, a sprightly ‘how are you?’ would be completely inappropriate.
If you’re not sure whether someone is all that well, you could inquire, ‘how are you getting on?’
This is also appropriate for someone who’s new to something – maybe they’ve just moved into the area, or have just started a new job. A boss or work colleague could also ask this of someone who is in the middle of a complex project or task.
If you know someone has not been well, you can adapt this question to ‘how have you been getting on?’ or ‘how are things (with you / at the moment)?’. Notice there is a big difference between a delicate ‘how are things?’ and a blunt ‘how’s things?’!
How do you reply?
Obviously the tone of your reply will be influenced by the tone of the question. If the other person has just asked the question out of politeness, he or she is probably expecting a direct reply in the same manner.
Your reply, however, can say a lot about yourself and, depending on the circumstances, give you an opportunity to open up and volunteer information, to fuel the conversation or to build rapport.
Firing back a simple ‘I’m fine and you’? destroys any chance of this in an instance!
If you always reply ‘I’m fine’ in the same way each time, you risk also being seen as insincere. You can at least try and vary it with your intonation or the use of other words. For example ‘ye-ah I’m fine thanks’ might suggest that you’re OK – though not particularly great.”
Saying ‘I’m fine’ can also sound quite formal and doesn’t sound very natural in most situations. Most people in a relatively casual situation would say ‘I’m OK’ or I’m alright, thanks.”
It is very British too to use phrases like ‘not too bad’ or even ‘could be worse’. This could mean that they are in fact feeling on top of the world or have lost both legs in a car accident.
A lot, of course, depends on the tone. To indicate that things haven’t been too great, they may add ‘I suppose’ or ‘all things considering’ to the end of their response.
That being said, even in the UK it is becoming more acceptable now to give positive responses, such as ‘yeah, I’m doing well thanks’ or just a simple ‘great’ or ‘fantastic’.
If your happy reply is because of a specific reason, for example a new baby, a wedding or you’ve won the lottery, feel free to communicate this information too at this point! Although be mindful that you may make the other person feel bad in comparison or look like you’re showing off!
‘Yes, I’m (very/really) well thanks’ is a particularly appropriate reply in a business setting or an interview. Make sure though that you really say it with conviction!
You may also often hear « I’m good thanks ». Whilst this phrase is used by many people, particularly in the USA, be careful, as you are literally saying that you are good, as in the opposite of being evil, rather than you are well!
Honesty is sometimes the best policy
There are, however, some circumstances where you might want to be honest with the other person, particularly if it’s a friend or family member. You could say ‘well, to be honest, not that great actually’, ‘I’ve known better’ or ‘I’m OK now, but… (I’ve just come out of hospital / lost my grandfather….)
You may also wish to use this opportunity to connect with the other person by talking about current affairs or, a favourite with the British, the weather!
“Yeah, not too bad thanks, especially with the nice weather we’re having at the moment.”
“Yeah OK, thanks, despite England getting knocked out of the World Cup yesterday!”
Whatever you choose to reply, just make sure you thank the other person for asking and never, ever, forget to ask how they are too!