how are you

What Your ESL Teacher Didn’t Tell You About “How Are You?”

Want to avoid awkward conversations with native English speakers?

Then it’s time to make sure you know how to react when someone asks “How are you?”

Sounds easy, right? Don’t you just tell people how you feel?

Not always.

Every day in my elementary ESL class, I greet (say hello to) my students with a cheerful (happy) “Good morning! How are you today?”

Most of them usually answer with “Fine!”

Sometimes students say they’re “happy,” “hungry” or “angry.”

Once, I had a boy tell me he was “perfect!”

If these answers were said by native English speakers in everyday situations, there might be some interesting reactions. People would be surprised to hear you say that you’re hungry or angry. Some friends might ask you “What’s wrong?” if you say that you’re fine.

Really?! What’s wrong with “fine”? And what if you are really hungry, why would people be surprised to hear it? Keep on reading to see all the possible answers and reactions to “How are you?”—things you never learned in ESL class or during your self-study.

What Your ESL Teacher Didn’t Tell You About “How Are You?”

Your answer to the question “How are you?” depends on who asked you the question. First we’ll look at what to say when people you don’t know or people you don’t know very well ask how you are.

Formal Answers to “How Are You?”

This first section will give you some formal (more polite) answers to “How are you?” You will use these when you’re talking to acquaintances and strangers. Of course, you can use these with anyone you speak to, even family and close friends.

Who are acquaintances and strangers?

Acquaintances are people that you know, but don’t know very well. This could be someone you’ve met just once or twice, perhaps a friend of a friend, an old classmate that you were never really friends with or a man who works at the local grocery store.

When you see an acquaintance somewhere, it’s polite to greet them. If you both know each other but don’t say anything to the other person, it’s somewhat rude (bad manners).

People that you don’t know or have never met before are called “strangers.” A stranger could be the cashier (the person working at the check-out counter) of a supermarket, the receptionist at an office or someone sitting next to you on the bus.

So, when one of these people (an acquaintance or a stranger) asks how you are, what should you respond?

Greetings for acquaintances and strangers

First, let me tell you something important: This person doesn’t want to know how you actually are that day. They’re just being polite.

In the United States, “Hi, how are you?” is almost a cultural greeting—it’s how we say hello. If you say this to an acquaintance or stranger, you probably aren’t really interested in their true answer. Also, the person you’re greeting won’t answer honestly, because that’s just how it is in this society.

So, in these situations, it’s best to give a short answer. You usually won’t share how you really feel. Here are some common answers and what they mean:

Fine

As an ESL teacher, this is the answer I hear most often from non-native speakers.

Be careful, though! “Fine” often means that you’re not completely all right—something could be wrong.

The tone you use when you say this word makes a difference. A shorter, higher-pitched “I’m fine” with a smile will mean you actually are okay. If you sigh, say it slowly and use a lower tone of voice, “I’m fine” could mean the opposite—you aren’t fine at all.

Let’s look at an example of how “fine” has a somewhat negative meaning, in a different situation:

Sally: Oh, sorry. I ordered the wrong color…you wanted red!

Kate: It’s fine. We’ll just use blue. There’s no time to order red now.

As you can see, Kate said, “It’s fine,” when it really wasn’t fine at all. Sally ordered the wrong color! But the word “fine” is often used to mean “good enough.” It’s not great, but it will work.

The same thing happens a lot when asking how you are. If someone is “fine,” often they’re not great, but they’re good enough.

Try this: next time you’re watching an American sitcom in English, listen for the word “fine” and think about if it’s used in a positive, neutral or negative way.

Not bad

This answer can sound either more neutral or slightly positive, depending on your tone. If you’re “not bad,” it means that things are okay.

All right

Responding that you’re “all right” is neutral, but usually more positive than “fine.” And just like the first two answers we’ve seen here, your intonation (pitch of voice, high or low) can change the meaning slightly (a little).

“I’m all right” has a positive vibe (energy) if each word is higher in tone than the previous word. When said this way, each word is held a bit longer than the previous word, too. Overall, the phrase is spoken a bit slowly.

To make a more neutral-sounding answer, “I’m” is the highest pitched word, “all” drops in tone and “right” goes up a step, but is lower than “I’m.” The words are spoken more quickly than in the previous example.

Ask a native speaker to say this phrase, or listen for it in context while watching American movies.

Good

The most common answer that I hear and say is “Good.” It’s a positive, polite and common response. You might not actually be feeling too good when you answer “Good,” but for an acquaintance or stranger it’s a normal answer to give.

Saying “Good” is grammatically correct if you mean that you’re happy and pleasant!

Why did I need to bring up grammar with the word “good”? It’s important because native speakers often confuse the word “good” with “well.” Let’s state each word’s usage more clearly.

Grammar point: Good vs. well

Good is an adjective, which means it describes a noun (person, place, thing). For example:

My son is a good boy.

I want to read a good book.

I know a good restaurant.

You did a good job.

In response to “How are you?” the response “good” is an adjective describing myself. I am good. It’s a correct response, grammatically.

(Note: The verb “are” comes from the infinitive “to be,” which is a linking verb. This isn’t an action verb, which is part of the reason why people get confused.)

“Well,” on the other hand, is an adverb. That means it describes a verb—an action. It describes how you do something. For example:

You did well on the exam.

He plays sports well.

My voice teacher said I sing well.

“Well” can also be used as an adjective, but only when you’re specifically talking about health. “Well” means “healthy” when it’s used in this way. Here’s an example:

Sally: I heard you had the flu, how are you?

Kate: I’m well.

So where does it get tricky? If someone asks “How are you doing?,” grammatically you should answer “Well.” This says “I’m doing well.” Since “doing” is an action verb, we need to use the adverb “well” to describe that action.

But most native speakers will still answer with the single word “Good.” You’ll hear it regularly in speech, and people actually might think it sounds funny/wrong to say “Well.” Even so, if someone asks “How are you doing?” then it’s grammatically correct to say “Well.”

Responding and continuing the conversation

After you say your quick answer, it’s polite to add a “thanks” afterwards. After that, you can ask the other person “How are you?” You don’t have to say “thanks” first, but it’s always nice. It’s most polite to ask the person how they are in return.

Here are some full responses to “How are you?”:

Good, thanks. And you?

Not bad. How are you?

I’m good. And yourself?

I’m fine, thanks. How about yourself?

Now you’re ready to go out in the English-speaking world and greet others. But what about when you’re talking with good friends or family?

Before you think about how to answer, you need to know that the question may be more informal than “How are you?”

Here are some other ways to greet and ask “How are you?” when you’re with a close friend or family member:

Informal Variations of “How Are You?”

  • How’s it going?
  • What’s up?
  • How’ve you been? (How have you been?)
  • What have you been up to?
  • What’s going on?

Until you become familiar with these questions, you’ll have to pay attention to which question was used. Why?

Well, if someone asks you “What’s up?” it doesn’t make sense to answer “Good.” The common answer is “Not much,” followed by a return “What’s up with you?”

Note: “What have you been up to” and “What’s going on?” can be answered in the same way. You might replace the “What’s up with you?” with “What’s going on with you?” if you want to match the original question.

Informal Answers to “How Are you?”

When we’re talking with close friends or family members, we’ll answer the question differently. It’s time to be honest.

When talking with your friends, parents or siblings (brothers and sisters), it’s okay to tell them how you really feel. Maybe you’ll answer “I’m fine” with a sigh at first, and then your friend will ask you “What’s wrong?” Then you can tell him or her exactly what’s bothering you.

Here are some more words you might use to describe how you’re really feeling when talking with these closer friends:

Exhausted – When you’re really tired. Maybe you didn’t sleep well or worked outside all day. If you don’t have any energy, use this word.

Okay – Here’s another quick, neutral answer like “fine” or “all right.” Depending on your tone when you use this response, your friend might ask “Just okay?” as a follow-up. This means they think something is wrong and want to know what’s going on in your life.

Frustrated – When you’re annoyed, or something keeps going wrong, you could be frustrated (annoyed). You may be frustrated when you can’t get your computer to print or when your co-worker makes the same mistake over and over.

Busy – If you have no free time because you have lots of things to do, say you’re busy!

Stressed out – When you’re busy, it’s possible that you could also be stressed out. Feeling stress (pressure) is a negative feeling that can happen when you have too much to do (often things you don’t want to do) and not enough time.

Worried – Use this response when you’re concerned about a problem. When you’re worried, you think the result to a situation could be bad but you don’t know how to make it okay, or you don’t have control of the situation so instead you think about it a lot. For example, someone who just lost their job will probably worry about money and finding a new job.

I’ve been better – When there is something wrong, you can use “I’ve been better” as your first response. This will lead your friend or relative to ask you “What’s wrong?” or something similar.

Great – We’ve seen lots of neutral and negative responses, but hopefully there are many times when you feel excellent! When you’re better than good, say you’re great.

Excited – Here’s another very positive response. If you’re looking forward to something—like a concert next week, spending time with a good friend or getting a puppy—say you’re excited! Then you can tell your friend or relative why you’re excited.

How to Practice Responding to “How Are You?”

I bet you never thought that “How are you?” could be so complex. But don’t get stressed out! Remember that there are two main situations with this greeting: talking to people you know and people you don’t know. The closer you are to someone, the more specific you can be about how you are feeling.

With some practice and seeing real life examples, you will soon be comfortable with the “How are you?” greeting.

Along with TV shows and movies, FluentU is an excellent resource for English language videos. FluentU music videos, popular talk shows and funny commercials to teach you English:

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If you want to watch it, FluentU’s probably got it.

FluentU makes it really easy to watch English videos. How? There are interactive captions. In other words, you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.

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FluentU lets you learn engaging content with world famous celebrities.

For example, if you tap on the word “brought,” then you see this:

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FluentU lets you tap to look up any word.

You can learn any video’s vocabulary with FluentU. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

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FluentU helps you learn fast with useful questions and multiple examples. Learn more.

The coolest part? FluentU knows the vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses your vocabulary to recommend you examples and videos. You have a truly personalized experience.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet—or download the FluentU app from the iTunes store—and practice listening to native English speakers use these phrases.

Then, it’ll be time to take your knowledge to the streets! Say “hello” to as many people as you can and see how they answer your “How are you?”

Once you’ve mastered this question, you might be so happy that you answer “perfect” to the next person who asks how you are!


Rebecca Thering is a freelance writer and editor who has taught English in Spain, South Korea and France. She offers online lessons, editing services, a supportive learning community and more for English learners at English With Rebe.

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