You Can’t Ask Me That!

Why asking 'how are you' isn't as easy as it seems

Continuing her series tackling socially unacceptable questions, Christine Manby asks when the right time is to put the stiff British upper lip aside and ask if someone really is ok

Monday 01 October 2018 11:11 BST

Even for the native speaker, the English language is full of pitfalls. There are hundreds of seemingly innocuous words and phrases that can mark you out as the wrong sort from the moment they pass your lips. Assuming, that is, that by “the wrong sort” we mean “the wrong sort” in the sense of Nancy Mitford’s “U” and “non-U”, with “U” standing for the upper classes and “non-U” representing the rest of us hopeless aspirants.

Aren’t we over that yet? It seems not. People all over the internet are judging the way you answer simple questions right now.

Like: “How do you do?” How do you answer that one? Let’s assume you just met someone for the first time and they’ve offered you that question with a handshake. Quick. What should you say in return? Pleased to meet you? Ravished to make your acquaintance? Very well, thank you? Wrong on all counts. The correct answer to “How do you do?” is, in fact, to say “How do you do?” right back. Confused? I know I was. But as Kate Fox writes in Watching the English: “‘How do you do?’ is not a real question about health or wellbeing.”

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