When “How Are You?” Doesn’t Mean “How Are You?”

Americans love small talk. Everywhere you go you hear it. At the grocery store, when getting into a school bus, even when you’re passing someone on the street. It’s common to ask someone how they are when you see them, and it’s often used as a greeting itself. The answer is as common as the question: “I’m good, how about you?” The whole exchange is a courtesy, not a real interest in the other person’s well being.

I’m an exchange student from Finland for the 2019-2020 school year. When I first came to this country, getting used to small talk was very difficult. As a Finn I’m not used to talking about nothing, especially with strangers. Unless you have something real to say, you stay quiet. That’s the culture I was raised into. Don’t waste words on talking about the weather or asking someone about their life if you’re not actually interested. 

The first time someone asked me how I was doing, I answered truthfully. I received a weird look before continuing on. After that it took me a while to get the appropriate answer out. It seemed so natural to everyone else, but I had to take a second before I could give an answer. Where I come from, you answer honestly. If you’re not fine, you say that, because the person asking wants to know. In Finland, when someone asks you a question, they’re interested in you, not just being polite.

After two months of living in the US I’ve learned to answer the question appropriately. It’s still an odd habit that I might never get fully used to, but at least now I’m being polite in other people’s eyes. I’ve had to learn that “how are you?” doesn’t necessarily mean the literal definition of the phrase, rather it’s a polite greeting. Culture difference at its finest.



Image Credit: http://finnishnightmares.blogspot.com/

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