For English language learners, the simplest questions can be the hardest to answer, like the question “How are you?” Sometimes “How are you?” is just a greeting, but sometimes people actually want to know more about you. How can you tell which is which, and how do you respond?
Well, it depends on two things:
- How well do you know the person?
- How many times has the person asked you how you’re doing? In other words, what round of the conversation are you in?
ROUND 1 – “How are you?” as a greeting
There are many ways to say “How are you?”
How are you?
How’s it going?
How do you do?
At the beginning of a conversation, these questions aren’t really questions at all. Instead, they are just greetings, or ways to make “hello” last a little longer. In fact, when initially greeting someone, after saying hello it would be rude to not also ask how they are doing. However, it might also be awkward for you to actually tell someone a long story about how you’re doing when you are asked. After all, they were really just saying hello!
Especially when speaking to coworkers, strangers and acquaintances, if someone asks one of these “How are you?” questions, you should respond with a quick answer and echo the question back.
Question: How are you?
How to respond: Good! And you?
Question: How’s it going?
How to respond: Not bad. How about yourself?
Question: What’s up?
How to respond: Not much! What’s up with you?
How to respond: ‘Sup, man.
Question: You good?
How to respond: Yeah I’m good. You?
Question: How do you do?
How to respond: Well, and you?
This last one – “How do you do?” is very formal. The rest are informal, with ‘Sup (short for “What’s up?”) being the most informal.
It may be appropriate to share more about yourself when a good friend or family member asks “How are you?” the first time. However, even when greeting close relationships people often don’t respond with more significant shares until “How are you?” has been asked at least twice.
ROUND 2 – A little more information
We are now in the second round! At this point, the person you are greeting has asked you at least one “How you are doing?” question and you have responded correctly by echoing the question. Nice job!
Now, if they follow up with another “How are you?” question, that means that this time they want to actually hear how you’re doing. It’s now that you should talk about yourself (and, if you have a family, your family). But, only share a little bit and keep it positive. A second “How are you?” question is an invitation to share more but not to share anything negative that might make other people feel uncomfortable. Save that for the third round!
Round 2A – General Questions
Some “How are you?” questions ask about your general well-being.
How are things?
How are you doing?
These questions are all pretty general and so you should respond with general information.
Question: How are things?
How to respond: Things are good! We’re all healthy and doing pretty well. What about you guys?
Question: How’s everything?
How to respond: Everything’s ok. We’re getting by and loving where we live. You?
Question: How are you doing?
How to respond: I’m doing well, all things considered. How about yourself?
Round 2B – Questions About the Recent Past
Each of these questions (below) specifically references the events of recent time.
What’s been going on?
How was your day / weekend?
What have you been up to?
When someone asks about a specific period of time, respond with things that you’ve been doing, not your general well-being. Keep in mind that if you haven’t seen someone in a long time, “recent” can be considered more than the very recent past; it could instead be considered “since we’ve last seen each other.”
Question: What’s been going on?
How to respond: Not much, ya know? Still working at the same job. You?
Question: What’s new?
How to respond: We had another baby, so that’s pretty new!
Question: How was your day / weekend?
How to respond: My weekend was good… Let’s see, what did we do? Oh yeah, we did some gardening and worked on the house a bit. We should have you over soon!
Question: What have you been up to?
How to respond: Nothing much. I’ve been practicing my English a lot with Lingoloop. Now I feel good speaking English!
Round 2C – Questions About Negative Events
When times are tough, people will ask you to share about how you are dealing with it.
How are you holding up?
Are you doing ok?
How are you feeling?
When someone asks you a question like this, they may sense something is wrong. It may be something happening to everyone, or maybe its something affecting you. The important thing to realize is that they are showing they care about you.
To “hold up” means to survive a difficult time, so “How are you holding up?” is an invitation to talk about that difficult time.
Question: How are you holding up?
How to respond: We’re ok. It’s been hard, but we’ve had a lot of help. Thanks so much for asking.
The questions “Are you doing ok?” and “How are you feeling?” sound pretty similar to “How are you doing?” but they have a different tone. “How are you doing?” is very general. “Are you doing ok?” is similar to what someone would ask if they saw you hurt yourself and wanted to know if you needed help. It implies that something is wrong. It’s the same thing with “How are you feeling?” They could have asked “How are you doing?” which literally just asks for adverbs that can describe your actions, but instead they asked about your feelings or emotions. That’s more personal, and so it’s an invitation to disclose more personal things. Neither of these are as direct as “How are you holding up?” so you don’t have to explicitly address the negative thing that has happened to you if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.
Question: Are you doing ok?
How to respond: Yeah I’m ok. My husband is still out of work but we’ll get through it thanks to friends like you.
Question: How are you feeling?
How to respond: I’m feeling ok, thanks for asking.
One exception to this: if you were recently ill and the other person knows this, they will ask “How are you feeling?” In this case they are asking for an update on your illness. You can respond, “I’m feeling much better, thank you!”
ROUND 3 – Share Anything
If you go through two rounds of “How are you?” questions and the person follows up with a third one, all bets are off! You’ve now entered a full-blown conversation. This person really cares about how you’re doing and wants to hear more! You’ll get through Round 1 by echoing the question and through Round 2 by adding a little more information. In Round 3 they may just repeat a different question from Round 2 or they may add the word “else” to one of the questions from Round 2B, such as:
What else has been going on?
What else is new?
What else have you been up to?
To this you can respond with anything you like! They clearly want you to talk about yourself.
For example, a full conversation might go like this:
Person 1: Hey, how’s it going?
Person 2: It’s going well, you?
Person 1: Good, good. What’s been going on?
Person 2: Not much, we’ve been staying inside a lot, reading books and playing games, stuff like that. You?
Person 1: Yeah a lot of the same. My wife is working from home now which is interesting. What else is new?
Person 2: Well, my kids have been just crazy. Yesterday my youngest took a pair of scissors and…
And there you have it! Different ways to say “How are you?” in English and the right way to respond. So, how are you doing? Specifically, how is your English? Do you feel good speaking English? If you need help building your confidence speaking English, try Lingoloop. Sign up for a free trial class today!