- Chris MacLeod, MSW
I know some of you ruefully laughed when you saw the title of this one. I don't think anyone is horribly bitter about it, but the common, occasionally awkward, exchange of, "How's it going?" - "Good. How are you?" - "Good" is a special pet peeve of many people. Some of us have devoted a little too much mental energy to questions like, "Why does everyone ask you how you are if they don't really want to know?", or "What's the point in asking someone what's new if they always just say 'nothing much'?"
So with that in mind, I'm going to write an entire article about the topic, because I really do have enough to say that I can do that.
The purposes of asking "How's it going?", "What's new?", etc.
As you probably already know, these phrases have two uses:
- As a standard greeting. The whole, How are you? - Good. You? - Good exchange is just another way of saying hi
- As a generic way to start a conversation, usually when we haven't talked to someone in a bit
Both uses have their qualities that people find a tad annoying. There's also the rich, confusing ground that pops up when we aren't sure how the other person is using the terms - Are they saying, "What's new?" because they want to chat, or are they just saying hello?
Using "What's up?" as a greeting
Asking how someone is and the reply of, "Good. How are you?" has become a kind of ritualized greeting. It's a longer, more detailed way of saying hello. Not only are you saying hi, but you're also being a little more friendly and asking how they are. In one sense the words are rote and empty, but in another way you're still showing you an interest in the other person.
Another way I always thought of it is, if you see a co-worker coming down the hall, simply saying 'hey' doesn't take up enough time. You'd greet them when they were fifteen feet away or so, then be left with a silence while you finished passing each other. The What's Up? Good exchange fills that dead air.
The right response in these situations is to just be friendly and go through the routine. Over thinking it will drive you mad. It doesn't really matter that everyone says they're "fine", even if they may not be. It's okay that people technically ask each other how they are, even though that's not what they really mean. It's just part of how it works.
"What's going on?" as a conversation starter
If you're visiting your parents and my dad asks you what's new, he obviously actually wants to know how you're doing and if anything really is new with you. It's about the most basic, all-purpose way to kick off a conversation there is. Hopefully the answer will provide enough material to start the real discussion. It's unoriginal enough that we can get tired of hearing it, but it works okay.
As you can probably guess, the best response if you're asked "What's up?" in this way is to give some kind of answer that will give them something to work with and get a conversation going. You could say how you actually are, but in a fleshed out way, or you could quickly say you're doing okay and then ask them some sort of question which will also hopefully let the true conversation begin (e.g., "I'm good. How was your vacation to South Africa?")
It can be hard to think of what to say right away. That's one main reason these phrases often lead to little awkward moments. People will often initially respond to, "How are you?" with something like , "I'm good... I'm good... yeah, things are okay..." to buy themselves time to come up with a better response. I think everyone feels a little caught off guard and on the spot to come up with a fascinating answer sometimes. Nothing unusual at all about taking a few seconds to gather your thoughts.
Don't worry if you don't always have a great answer to the literal "How are you?" question. Often we're really not up to much or not a lot is new. The point is to get someone talking, and as long as that happens then everything is fine. Plus if someone really does want to know what's new in your life, saying "Not much" and then changing the topic technically did answer the question.
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The confusing middle ground
I think what drives people mental over "How are you doing?" is that there are lots of cases where they're not sure how the other person means it. Here's a sample of the questions and concerns that can rush through your head when you're hit with a "What's up?":
- "Are they saying 'How are you doing?' to say hello or because they actually want to talk?..."
- "If they just wanted to say hi, then I don't want to try to start a conversation..."
- "But if they do want to chat, then I don't want to just go 'fine' and walk away..."
- "If they do want to talk, do they truly want to hear how I am, or do they not particularly care and were just using that line to initiate the conversation?"
I'm sure you've had those moments where you do the standard How are you? - Good exchange with a colleague, then you both awkwardly hesitate for a beat because you're not sure whether you should say more or not.
Another thing that happens fairly often is someone will say, "How's it going?", hoping to start a conversation. The other person will say, "Good. How are you?", but not because they're doing the greeting version, but because they can't think of anything to say. The first person will then respond, "I'm good too...." Then there will be this confused moment hanging in the air before the conversation peters out. By the halfway point of the back and forth neither side knew whether they were playing out a Greeting or a Conversation Starter, and once the exchange was over they were paralyzed and not sure how to go forward.
This can all leave you baffled. Thankfully getting your wires crossed with someone doesn't really hurt you. So you passed a classmate on campus and they wanted to talk, and you just greeted them and went on? No big deal, you still said hello. It's not like you humiliated yourself or anything. If the same thing happened to you, you'd understand. Or they wanted to talk and you couldn't come up with a response and fell into an accidental greeting? Just take a second to think of something to say and re-initiate the conversation. Overall, don't over-analyze things or worry about it too much. It gets easier to handle these situations when you realize it's fine if you sometimes get them wrong.
Other reasons some people may be put off by "How's it going?"
There are a few reasons more socially awkward people may cringe at the thought of getting asked "What's going on?", when it's used as a conversation starter:
They feel like they have to give an interesting response, even though they often don't have one
They may think that if someone asks them what's new, that they to have a captivating answer every time. Also, if someone doesn't have much of a social life, they may really not have much going on, and worry they'll look boring and dorky for hardly ever having a good response. As I just said, the point is to say hello or kick off a conversation and the actual answer to the "What's going on?" starter question only sometimes matters.
Another funny thing is that if given enough time, almost everyone's usual answer to, "What's new?" becomes boring after a while. So don't get too worried if you always feel like you're giving the same old reply. When you've known someone long enough, whatever they typically say becomes the equivalent to "Not much...", no matter how exciting or impressive their lives may have seemed to you at first. The traveler visited yet another country. The outdoorsy friend went camping again. The artsy person put on another play or had another exhibition. The party animal had another rowdy weekend of drinking. Of course, if you do feel bad for not having a life, you should still try to fix it. But not having a sparkling come back to "What's new?" shouldn't the main thing you lose sleep over.
They feel like people are grilling them
Some socially inexperienced people are defensive and secretive, because they want to hide parts of their lives, such as not having a ton of friends. When people ask them how they are, the insecure, mildly suspicious part of them feels like they're being interrogated. They may even think people are asking them "What's up?" in a mocking way, so they can chuckle over their pathetic answer. They may leave everyone feeling a bit puzzled when they always seem to clam up whenever someone asks them how they are.
When people ask how you are, you can sometimes just say, "Nothing new really" and change the topic. However, you can't swing too far the other way and never reveal any personal information about yourself. Sometimes they do want to know, and not giving them anything will make them wonder. You can at share some more superficial details.
Disliking "What's up?" because of the awkwardness it can be associated with
There's no doubt "How are you?" can be at the center of some forced, uncomfortable interactions, especially when you don't feel like you have your social act together on the whole. You can come to dislike the phrases because of the situations they get linked to. One example is when you see someone around all the time, but for whatever reason you always struggle to make conversation with them. This happens a lot with co-workers or acquaintances you don't have a ton in common with. In these cases you always seem to go through the whole greeting thing and it always feels really perfunctory and awkward. You know you should be saying more to them, but the words escape you. Every "How are you? Good, you?" just twists the knife. The "What's new?" is a more a symptom of the problem, not the cause. How to fix the underlying issue of being able to think of something else to say is for another article.