saying “how are you?” feels inauthentic to me

A reader writes:

Am I being unprofessional/unfriendly if I don’t engage in the “how are you/fine how are you/fine” interactions at my office?

It feels deeply inauthentic. “Fine” is never the best answer for how I’m feeling, and it feels painful to say when in actuality I’m going through a rough time. When I ask someone how they are, I actually want to know, so hearing “fine” is also frustrating.

I’m still within a probation period so either way I wouldn’t be sharing particularly intimate details at work. When I wanted to give my boss a heads up that I was having a rough time that day (so she wouldn’t be concerned if she noticed me being teary-eyed), I summarized a PG-13 situation as “an interpersonal issue with a loved one.” That to me still feels genuine even though I’m not giving any specifics.

Right now when someone asks “how are you?” I sometimes say fine (because I feel obligated) but I don’t always ask them back. (Which might come across as rude, I realize. I just hate asking such an inauthentic question.) Or I don’t respond back at all but just smile warmly.

Is this okay? I’m forming good relationships at work and people seem to like me. I have lots of conversations with my colleagues throughout each week where we’re actually getting to know each other. It’s just these walk-by greetings that I’m struggling with. If I do need to say something back, can you suggest some alternatives to “fine” that can still be neatly inserted into the brief window of that interaction? I’m actually overall really happy with my life and job right now so “fabulous,” “grateful,” and other positive terms make more sense to me than “fine” but I don’t know if these will seem weird.

Last thing: I’ve had social anxiety all my life (even now when I have an enormous and wonderful community) and these interactions make that flare up. Sometimes what I struggle with here is trying to figure out whether the person is actually asking me how I am (in the case of the people I work with with whom I also have extended genuine conversations with or with my boss who may be asking about the progress of what I’m working on) but the vague “how are you?” is difficult to interpret.

You’re struggling with this because “how are you?” means different things in different situations.

When the interaction is a quick one — like when you’re passing someone in the hall or greeting them in the morning — “how are you?” is a social ritual that means “I acknowledge you, fellow human!” The fact that people aren’t looking for long, genuine replies in that situation isn’t inauthentic; it’s that the words mean something different than they might in other contexts.

In situations that aren’t quite so quick — like at the start of a meeting with a colleague — “how are you?” is often more of a real question, but it’s still part social ritual. There’s room for more sharing here, but there are still boundaries that depend on the situation. When you’re dealing with colleagues, answers like “great, just came back from a vacation in Nepal” or “I’ll be pretty good as soon as I get out from under these board reports” are fine … but a long blow-by-blow report on your uncle’s health crisis or an emotional account of a fight you had with your significant other wouldn’t be. That’s not because people are being inauthentic, exactly; it’s because of the boundaries (and time limits!) we have at work.

And then there are the times when someone really does mean “tell me what’s going on in your life — I truly want to know how you’re doing.” These are usually in more emotionally intimate situations, like when you’re talking with a BFF or a close relative. But sometimes there’s a work version of this too, like when your coworker knows you’ve been having a rough time personally or your boss is checking in on how you’re handling a stressful workload. (Still, there are work boundaries here, particularly around time, and people don’t expect you to dive into all the details the way you might with a close friend.)

So back to your question: Are you being unprofessional/unfriendly if you don’t engage in the “how are you/fine how are you/fine” interactions with your colleagues? And yeah, possibly so. If your answer to “how are you?” when you pass someone in the hallway is “fine” without a “what about you?” following it, you’re probably coming across as a little rude or brusque to some people. That doesn’t mean everyone secretly hates you or anything like that, but it’s probably a thing that some people notice and wonder about. Again, this is just a social ritual of acknowledgement, and people expect you to play your part in that. That means responding with “good, and you?” or “hanging in there — how are you?” or whatever version of “fine/you?” you’re most comfortable with.

That is literally all this interaction requires. And remember, it’s not about people not being genuine; the words here mean something different. It’s about saying “I acknowledge you.” And you want people to feel acknowledged, right?

(But I would not go with the “grateful” response you contemplated in your letter. That feels almost leading, because it’s an unusual enough response that people are almost certainly going to feel obligated to ask what’s going on. They’re going to assume you just got saved from a mugging or narrowly avoided an avalanche or so forth — they’re not likely to hear it as “I feel general gratitude toward the universe for my happy life.”)

{ 526 comments… read them below }

  1. Kate, Short for Bob*

    There’s a very English/Scottish phrase excellent for this situation – “Mustn’t grumble”. Said in a cheery tone, followed with “You?”. You’re not giving any information on your well-being at all, but you’re fulfilling the social contract without awkwardness. Worth a shot?

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      The more common version of that in the US I’ve heard is “can’t complain!”

      1. Anna*

        My husband says, “It’s going!” Kind of the same thing. It’s just about acknowledging each other. We don’t sniff butts, we say “How are you?” Or “How’s it going?”

        1. ThatGirl*

          In French, the exchange “Ça va?” “Oui, ça va” literally means “it goes?” “yes, it goes” … so yeah. I think this is a perfectly acceptable response.

          1. Rebecca in Dallas*

            Haha, one of the first things we learned in high school French was the various responses to “Ca va?” I particularly liked “Comme ci, comme ca” (not sure if I’m spelling it right). Basically, “So-so.” But it sounds much more elegant in French!

            And yes, I’ll often respond with, “It’s going” or “So far, so good” if it’s early in the morning.

          2. Amy the Rev*

            I remember when I was studying abroad in Paris and going through a pretty bad friend-breakup with someone back home, and I came down in the morning and my host-mom greeted me with her usual ‘bonjour Amy! Ça va?” and I just burst into tears and sobbed, “non”.

            1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

              Oh no! :( That’s sad for then-you, but that’s also such an evocative way to express that kind of distress.

          3. Miso*

            In Germany we have “läuft” (goes) as well. That’s quite informal, though, and kinda slang I guess. Well it was, you know, when I was in school, teenagers nowadays probably use something completely different.
            I wonder where it’s actually coming from though. Because why we also ask “How’s it going?” in German, we actually use another verb – gehen vs laufen.
            So I guess someone just started a pun on that or something like that?

            1. TheReluctantOtter*

              I love German – especially “na” which is a great catch all term. I’ve had whole conversations just using it.

              OP – if I’m having a less than fantastic day for whatever reason I tend to adopt the same approach as Anna’s husband –

              It goes, it goes

              People seem to respond well to a doubling up of the statement, whatever that may be.
              Quickly flipping to ask after them is helpful to take the societal focus off yourself.

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          We have new kittens. The culture clash with the dog is “We should sniff butts.” “Noses.” “Butts.” “Noses.” “Butts.” “Noses.”

        1. Chicken*

          Yeah, I like this response. If you say it in an upbeat tone, it sounds polite, but it is, strictly speaking, accurate even if your life is going to hell.

          I also struggle with this interaction sometimes, so I’ve got a repertoire of neutral responses.

          “Mm-hm” (said with a similar tone to “so-so” but with a smile on my face)
          “Still breathing”
          “Getting along”

          My experience is, increasingly, that so long as you smile and sort of nod while you say the thing, it functions to fill the spot of polite acknowledgment. I also tend to go for “How goes” or “and you” as follow-up because they’re fast and ambiguous.

      2. Batshua*

        In Hebrew, people say “mah yitlonem adam chai” — roughly, “how can a living person complain”.

        Or as my patients say “another day above ground”.

      3. Serin*

        I once overheard an exchange in which someone said, “Can’t complain!” and the other one responded, “Then you’re not trying hard enough.”

      4. KH*

        My co-worker just says “still breathing”… I hate the routine also and usually just say “hey” or “howdy” or something.

        The receptionist is a little more pushy, for her I say whatever the weather or traffic is for that particular day or something else quirky like “tired” or “hungry” or “thirsty” – it’s a game now.

    2. Amadeo*

      I also sometimes use “Oh, it’s going.” when someone asks me how it’s going by way of ‘fellow human’ greeting. I like ‘Mustn’t grumble” too!

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I’m a huge fan of “it’s going”! Especially when everything is stressful and the world feels like it’s falling apart.

      1. AthenaC*

        Yup – not uncommon for someone to answer my “how are you?” question with, “Still alive!” To which I usually say – “Sounds better than the alternative!” And then we go about our business.

          1. Connie-Lynne*

            This is entirely due to my current personal situation, but “Still alive” and similar responses make me cry a little when I hear them.

        1. Batshua*

          In the morning, when I first get to work, my answer is “I’m awake!”

          (That is, I’m not really awake yet, but I’m here, please check back later for more social niceties.)

          1. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

            It’s become a habit at work for people to greet me with “Good morning!” to be followed by my “Mornin’.” or “How’s things?” “It’s morning.” It’s well-known that I take a little time to get going in the morning, and if manage to come in well-energized, everyone is taken aback.

          2. Pathfinder Ryder*

            When my regular schedule was afternoon/evenings, my answer the rare times I had to work mornings was “I’m not awake yet” :)

      2. Jayn*

        I’m more likely to go with a less upbeat “surviving”, or else something like “stressed but managing”, something to indicate ‘not great but you don’t need to worry about me’. Granted I’m not great at these interactions myself, since it’s a question that often isn’t a question–I usually reflexively answer “fine” even when it would be appropriate for a more personal answer because it’s easier than figuring out what type of situation it is.

      3. S*

        My mom used to reply with a cheerful “I’m up and dressed, so I can’t be doing too badly!”

      4. Duck Duck Møøse*

        I usually say “[I’m] Hanging in there!” – That seems to sum up that there are challenges, but I’m still trying. That seems like an authentic answer. Plus it makes me think of all the “Hang in there, baby” kitten posters, so I can deliver it with an amount of jocularity, no matter what I’m actually feeling. ;)

    3. Statler von Waldorf*

      My go-to reply is “Living the life, dreaming the dream.” I usually say it with anywhere from a touch of sarcasm to dripping with it, depending on who I’m talking to and my mood that day.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        One of my faves (for dry humor) is “living the dream,” but my other favorite (said in a joking voice) is “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” Or quoting DJ Khaled.

        1. LBK*

          I only know two DJ Khaled quotes so I’m laughing pretty hard at the idea of replying to “how are you?” with either “Congratulations, you played yourself” or just shouting “DJ KHALED!”

          1. Fleah*

            Oohhhh I’m loudly cackling in the dr’s office waiting room. I think I’ll have to yell “DJ Khaled” at the next person who asks how I am.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Now I’m really mad at myself for not responding with “Congratulations, you played yourself”! ;)

            I’m really fond of:
            “It’s so real out here right now.”
            “Another one!”
            “Enjoy life; live it up.”
            “They wanna come stress me out? Heh, bye.”
            “Bless up!” (very rarely and carefully used, though)
            “They don’t want you to win.”
            “All I do is win win win…”

            There was a brief period of time where I responded to all “how are you’s” with a canned phrase from the DJ Khaled inspirational quote generator—my coworkers were aware, and it was hilarious. I’m really sad it’s gone inactive (original address:

            1. Say what, now?*

              “All I do is win” is the best response. Cocky enough that in the morning you know it’s not true. How do you win at mornings? You’ve just been snatched from warmth and comfort… no winning there.

        2. GOG11*

          What does clear eyes refer to? All I can think of is “clear eyes” said in Ben Stein’s monotone voice.

          1. General Ginger*

            It’s a quote from Friday Night Lights (I think only the show, not the movie).

          2. Dirty Paws*

            It’s from the TV show Friday Night Lights…it was the high school football team’s motto.

        3. Tricksie*

          Yes! If I’m not having a great day, I always say, “Living the dream!” with enough sarcasm that people laugh and we all move on.

        4. BF50*

          I tend to use something like “great” or “fantastic” regardless of my day. Depending on inflection, it can be literal or mean the opposite or something in between.

          A fake, overly enthusiastic “great” at 7 am when it’s clear I haven’t had coffee yet, generally gets me a chuckle.

          If sarcasm isn’t your thing, I do think it’s also fine to actually give information. “A bit of a rough morning, but ok” doesn’t come off oddly, though just saying “bad” might. On the other side of that, a genuine “I’m having a good morning” is also ok. The key is to keep it short and not force someone to engage in conversation.

          1. Chalupa Batman*

            “Fantastic” is my go-to response. I’ve been told more than once that it’s made someone’s day when said genuinely. (I try to keep the genuine to sarcastic ratio skewed toward genuine, it’s good for my mood. “Hanging in there” is my “not great but I’ll manage” response.)

    4. Fenchurch*

      Sometimes I use versions of this like “Been better, but been worse!” or “Making it through!”

      There’s nothing wrong with showing a bit of the “Yeah, I’m not super, but hey I’m handling it.” undertones. Nobody expects you to be awesome all the time (I hope!) they just might not want to hear the details/share the burden if they don’t know you very well.

    5. JulieBulie*

      If greeted with “how are you” or equivalent, I say “so far, so good – but it’s still early.” Or, “another day in paradise!”

      If I greet first, I say “hey, [name]” or just “hey” if I don’t know their name.

      Sometimes we just greet one another with a smile and a nod. That’s acceptable, too.

      I don’t love mindless/pointless small talk, but it’s very weird to pass a coworker in our verrrrry long coworker without acknowledging them.

      1. Queen of All Slackers*

        My go-to is “I’m just smurfy, thanks for asking!” It’s good for a laugh or a weird look; either response is acceptable.

        1. Say what, now?*

          I used to say “just spiffy,” but frankly… I’m over the how are you’s as well. I just play the game with a “fine, and you?” and get out of there.

      2. Eh? Non Y. Mouse*

        Yeah, I do lots of smiles and nods.

        Though I give myself a bit of a complex over wondering if I smiled or grimaced at them.

        Verbally I rotate through a number.

        “it’s going!”
        “Keeping busy!”
        “enjoying the quiet!” (During off season).

      3. Pixel*

        Chiming in with “everything is ticking along!”

        OP, Alison’s answer was, as usual, perceptive and has hit the nail right on the head. For additional discussion about the proper place of niceties/”inauthenticities” in interactions, I can’t recommend Captain Awkward enough.

      4. Noobtastic*

        Actually, greeting someone first, in a way that does NOT use “how are you” is a great way to deal with this, by “heading it off at the pass.”

        You can greet someone with a simple Hello, which requires no response other than a smile, wave, nod, or even simple eye contact. Then you can go about your day, and only ask “how are you” questions if you really mean them. As an added bonus, if you are always the one who greets first, you get the reputation for being really friendly!

        If you’re having a good day, and feeling particularly perky, you can change your greeting to something fun, such as “Greetings, human!” or “Salutations, Earthling,” or something like that.

      5. Not So NewReader*

        I worked in a place where people would pass each other in a not-really-wide hallway and ignore each other. It was weird. If I tried smiling or greeting they thought I was weird.
        I never got used to passing some one with in a foot of each other and not acknowledging their presence.

    6. aniktwo*

      I generally say “plugging along!” It feels more honest without being revealing – fairly neutral while still being jocular (I’m in Canada).

    7. Nonz*

      A friend of mine always answers, “I just don’t know how I could possibly be any better!” and regardless of what I know about how things are actually going, it always makes me smile/resets my day.

      1. HeyNonnyNonny*

        I have a coworker who always responds with something along the lines of ‘fantastic!’ and it always brightens my day. His theory is that being upbeat will rub off on others, and it totally works even when I know it’s calculated.

    8. JHS*

      In Ireland we’d use often use “Grand” or “Not a bother” (short for “Ah, sure, not a bother on me”)”, followed by “Yourself?”. “Grand” is normally said nonchalantly, but you can make it more Irish with “Ah, grand”. “Not a bother” is normally said cheerfully.

      Can I suggest practicing your preferred response (not necessarily one of these!) with a friend or in a mirror, so it feels more natural to you when you use it at work? After a while it won’t feel forced at all.

      1. Djuna*

        I use “Grand, and yourself?” all the time.
        My grandfather used to say “Not so bad.” but he had a lovely, lilting Donegal accent so he never came off as Eeyore-ish as I would saying it.

      2. Goreygal*

        I love people’s confusion when I ask “how’s she cuttin’?” (working in UK at the moment).
        Another alternative to “grand” is “suckin diesel”

        1. Ann Cognito*

          Oh, I love being reminded of “how’s she cuttin’?”. I live in the US now, but where I lived growing up in Ireland, that was how everyone asked!

    9. Zinnia*

      My go to responses to this question at work are ‘Not too bad’ or ‘I’ll be better when I get coffee / I’m better now I have coffee.’

      For the times it’s obviously a greeting rather than a question – passing in the hall, that sort of thing – I usually treat the ‘How are you’ as a generic greeting and respond with whatever innocuous greeting comes to mind – ‘what great / awful weather today,’ or ‘hope you’re having a good day,’ or whatnot.

    10. Sled dog mama*

      My personal favorite is the Russian ничего (nichevo) which literally translates as nothing but can be understood as the equivalent of the French comme ci comme ça or the one I’ve hear recently “meh”.

      1. Goreygal*

        “Meh” is seen as a negative among my peer group. If someone constantly replied with “meh” to how are you I’d soon start dreading seeing them.

    11. Librarian from Space*

      My dad ALWAYS (every single time I talk to him, for decades) says “Fair to partly cloudy.” And an old boss I had said, “Well, my arms aren’t touching pine,” which I thought was funny.

    12. Renamis*

      I use “Magically, how ’bout you!” and it gets a laugh. Then again it’s also themed to what my workplace is about, so it’s not so odd. I for one love getting non-standard answers, sometimes it can really set the tone for the rest of the interaction!

    13. Fiorinda*

      I’ve always used ‘I’m getting there’ for this kind of situation. Nobody ever asks where ‘there’ is!

    14. Vonbomb*

      In Australia a common alternative to fine is “well, thanks!” And actually doesn’t really require a return question as by then, you’ve moved past each other. Even if you replied, “well, thanks. And you?” You wouldn’t necessarily expect a response. It’s just a social nicety. And you’re literally saying, I am well. Unless you’re actually infirm, it’s entirely truthful.
      If I’m not “feeling it” with the reply, and I’ve said “good thanks” and we are friendly enough I might then say, “actually that’s a giant lie, I’m not good, I’m tired” and we would both laugh.

    15. Hey Nonnie*

      I have the same gripe about superficial interactions, although I largely keep it to myself. The best social interaction epiphany I’ve had was when I realized that no one will notice if you don’t answer the question. If someone asks “How are you?” you can skip over the part where you answer the question, and just bounce the question back to them.

      “How are you?”
      “Hey, Wakeen, how are you?”
      “Oh, pretty good!”

      No one cares about the answer, so they’ll never notice that you didn’t give them one.

  2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    There are also other answers you can give besides “fine”! They should all stay at a similar level of lightness, but answers I’ve given or received from colleagues have included, “Well, it’s Monday, and I’m here,” “Looking forward to the weekend!” “Way too chipper for this hour of the morning,” “Ready to kick a** and chew gum…. and we can’t chew gum on the phones!”

    Going into “funny” answers requires a fine bit of social awareness that you might not be comfortable with, but it’s another option to make it feel less ritual and meaningless than always giving the same answer.

    1. MegaMoose, Esq*

      I’m a big proponent of something factual and brief that invites commiseration but only shallowly: “It’s Monday!” or “It’s raining!” or something along those lines.

      1. Batshua*

        Also good is “Happy Friday!” or “Happy payday!”

        If someone else is having a crappyish end of the week, that can lighten things a bit.

        1. BurdeeMama*

          I love Happy “Whatever-day-of-the-week-it-is”! It’s upbeat without actually saying anything.

    2. blackcat*

      I often reply with something irrelevant that side steps the question while being vaguely positive and/or commenting on the weather/other relatively neutral thing.

      “Glad my cat didn’t wake me up this morning!”
      “Remarkably pleased with my new socks.”
      “Looking forward to X tv show.”
      “Car seat warmers are great, aren’t they?” (only good for winter)
      “I think I’m gonna wilt if I go outside again.”
      “The rabbit in my garden was thwarted by my new mesh fencing.”

      1. TeacherNerd*

        YES TO FANTASTIC SOCKS. That will be my new go-to answer. First must buy some funky socks!

        1. JulieBulie*

          Yeah! If you’re going to brag about your socks, you’d better not be bluffing!

      2. Parenthetically*

        Yes! I do this all the time without thinking about it. My boss asks how everyone is doing as they walk in in the morning, both students and staff. Thinking back, probably 30% of the time my response is about the weather. “How are you this morning?” “Boy, what a filthy day!” or “How about that thunderstorm last night!” or “Freezing!” or “Guess February and March decided to swap this year!”

        Weather-related inanities are definitely standard in this situation.

    3. Emilia Bedelia*

      My go-tos are generally something like
      “Same old, same old!”
      “Just another day in paradise!”
      “Living the dream!”
      “Free donuts today so I’m GREAT!”
      Or, my very favorite in every situation, “You know how it is”. It’s so perfectly vague!

      1. Fenchurch*

        One of my coworkers always uses “Living the dream!” and sometimes when I’m feeling sassy I’ll respond “Dream bigger!”

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yup. OP, if I asked someone how they are and they just smiled back (and did not have an auditory or oral speaking disability), I would find it odd at best, and rude at worst.

      I don’t mean to be harsh, but I think you’re overthinking this. I also think it’s important to let go of the “authenticity” language. Breezy “how are you’s” aren’t inauthentic; they just mean something different than “please sit on this imaginary therapy couch and tell me all your deepest feelings.” It authentically means, “you good? Alive? Cool.”

      For responses, it’s ok to say, in a tongue-in-cheek tone, things like “I’m alright” or “still kicking!” or “it’s going!” or truly anything that signals that the world still turns. And you can always say, “How’s it going?” There are lots of phrases that are acceptable substitutes but that may feel less fraught to you than “how are you?”

      Good luck!

      1. Thistle*

        Definitely PCBH. Social niceties are important in the office.

        1. Answer politely (even if using one of the ‘cute’ replies suggested)
        2. Ask them in return (unless the conversation immediately turns to work)
        3. Don’t reply truthfully/unload on someone unless you are a close friend and in private. Even if you are close work colleagues, work is not the time or place to discuss problems.

        If you must reply truthfully when having a hard time something like “no great” or “you DON’T want to know” is best, swiftly followed up by asking them so the person doesn’t feel obliged to ask for more details.

        Politeness is much more important in a work situation than authenticity.

        1. Eh? Non Y. Mouse*

          Though I’d say number 2 can be skipped IF the breezeby asking happened so quickly that they’re practically gone by the time you actually answer.

          1. CMart*

            This is my big hurdle at work right now! I tend to err on the side of just smiling and nodding in acknowledgement when I pass someone in the hall (we’re all either going to/from the bathroom or the kitchen), and every so often someone will say “Hey CMart! How’s it going?” and I’ll be like “Hey! Good! How…” aaaaand they’re ten steps behind me already.

            I’ve just been hoping they don’t think I’m rude by never asking how they are, since it’d be silly in that context.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I think you’re ok, CMart :) If someone says “how are you?” while walking away, they’re usually just saying it in lieu of “hello!” So I don’t think a fast reply is required. Just saying, “Hey! Good!” is enough.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              Shorten it to just “and you?”

              Half the time people don’t even notice that I have not answered the question “how are you?”

          2. Cassie*

            When this happens, I don’t even answer the “how are you?”, I just say hi or smile. Especially if we are both walking quickly and pass each other before the question is even finished. If they really wanted a concrete answer, they’d slow down (and I’d be forced to slow down too, as not to be rude).

        2. Tuesday*

          I think you can get away with not asking them in return. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “Fine, thanks.” There is probably someone out there who’ll get offended by not being asked, but I’d guess the vast majority of people won’t care or even notice. Plus, it’s preferable to

          “How are you?”
          “Good! How are you?”
          *silence as they walk away*

          I don’t really care that they didn’t answer my question-that-isnt-really-a-question, but it still feels like you put up your hand for a high-five and got nothing. I’d rather just give them the dead-end response.

          When I was in high school I worked as a cashier at a grocery store, and we were supposed to greet everyone with “Good morning, how are you today?” or whatever. It was such an automatic, robotic greeting that I did once have this conversation:

          Me: “Good morning, how are you?”
          Customer: “Good, thanks, and you?”
          Me: “I’m good, thanks. How are you? Wait…”

          1. Vonbomb*

            I have had that interaction so many times, usually the “oh wait” comes as I’m walking away

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Oh, I forgot. Another potential response is “Oh, you know…” trailing off. No one will stop and ask for explication unless they want to.

      2. Turtle Candle*

        Yep. When I was in college, a dorm-mate got all over me for smiling and saying “How are you?” and then “Have a great day!” to the cashier at the local 7-11. “You don’t know her. You don’t care how she is or how her day is. It’s so fake.”

        I did not have a response at the time because I wasn’t that good at thinking on my feet, but I was so indignant, because I wasn’t being fake. It’s just that in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” don’t mean “I am intimately interested in your life.” They are idiom phrases; they mean “I acknowledge that you’re a person, and hope this brief social transaction goes as smoothly and pleasantly as possible”–and when I say that to a colleague or the 7-11 cashier or the FedEx guy, I really do mean them! I just mean “I acknowledge you and hope in a general sense that you are well,” not “I am deeply intrigued by the details of your life.”

        Being accused of being ‘fake’ for participating in a brief social interaction with a well-known meaning, where I genuinely meant the well-known meaning (‘you are a person, I acknowledge that, I hope things go reasonably pleasantly’), felt sort of as if I’d said “Wow, it’s raining cats and dogs out there” and he’d replied with “I see not dogs! I see no cats! LIAR.”

          1. msmorlowe*

            I think that’s slightly different: British (and Irish) people tend to be put off by the exuberance of American service workers. We don’t expect that kind of overt enthusiasm, so it comes across to us as more nosy than polite. We’ve nothing against “how are you?” as a catch-all phrase of politeness.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I have a colleague who rails about “how are you” and all social niceties being insincere, and I think it’s an elaborate justification for being an asshole. (Seriously. This is someone who thinks “I’m just being honest!” allows you to say any number of unspeakably inappropriate or rude things and pretend that doing so is a virtue.)

        2. Not So NewReader*

          It’s funny/odd. Once I decided that I sincerely meant how are you/have a good day, I had less problem worrying about other people’s sincerity.

          It’s amazing how quickly and unknowingly we can use other people as a mirror to see our own reflection.

          I went through a spell years ago where I doubted the value of “how are you/have a good day”. I was in a negative place to begin with so my thinking became encumbered also. My conclusion was simpler than Alison’s well thought out explanation. I decided to expect less. In an extreme example, I would say to myself, “This is not about the meaning of life.”

          Sometimes life gets rough and we start looking for answers under every rock and pebble we find. Here is the tricky part, not all rocks and pebbles are supposed to have answers under them. Some stuff just IS. It never lost meaning because there is no greater meaning to it.

        3. The Milk Is Not User Friendly*

          Or perhaps really literal. I have to admit, I do sometimes think that all social activities are exercises in manipulation, because they’re designed to get people to do things we want them to do – but I also think I don’t approach the world in quite the same way as other people, so this is my problem to deal with. I totally get how saying ‘How are you?’ can feel inauthentic, but I love the scripts and the algorithms for dealing with routine daily life. As a hater of small talk (I just don’t get it – I don’t need it, and it’s very hard for me to understand why others do, but I do understand THAT they do need it), these scripts are perfect!

    5. Adam*

      I have a friend who texts me “How’s it going?” all the time. I’ve taken to sending her funny videos as responses.

    6. Newby*

      Below are my go to replies:
      “Desperately in need of coffee”
      “Pretty good. Almost done with work project X!”
      “A little crazy right now. I have a project due tomorrow and I don’t feel quite ready.”
      “Counting down the days until the weekend”

    7. Rookie Biz Chick*

      Depending on audience, I love to reply to “how are you,” with “upright and sober!” There are so many fun ways to continue that interaction, but emphasis on the know your audience part.

      1. Kelly L.*

        I have an acquaintance who says “Up and dressed!” She’s said it so many times, though, that she doesn’t really enunciate it, and it comes out like “Open trast!” and makes people scratch their heads.

  3. Grits McGee*

    OP, if it makes you feel better, if someone is interested in a more in-depth answer to “How are you” and you just give a cordial “Fine” or “I’m doing well, thank you” they will almost always ask follow up questions if they want to engage in a longer conversation. There’s no downside to just giving a brief, friendly response to that question.

  4. Emilitron*

    If you don’t like saying “fine” just treat it as the greeting that it (these days) is, not as an actual question. Reply to “How are you?” with “Hey! How’s it going?” (which is also not an actual question, and by not answering “fine” you’ve signaled that you’re not really looking for an answer either)

    1. MegaMoose, Esq*

      I can vouch that this totally works. Especially if you’re walking with purpose and not slowing down to chat.

    2. jo*

      Yes! I like answering a quick “how are you” with either a non-answer or a repetition of some variation of the question (which in turn requires no answer). When I walk into the office, our receptionist greets me with, “Hey, jo, how’s it going?” and I’ll often say “Good morning, good to see you!” or “Hi, how are you!”

      Saying “I’m good/fine, thanks!” also works when one of us is in a hurry. This way you answer the question, show appreciation for their acknowledgment of you, and continue on your way without actually asking how they are. IN this situation, people tend not to notice that I haven’t reciprocated their “how are you.”

    3. Emi.*

      Yeah, seriously! In my area, the correct response to How you doin’ is How you doin’.

        1. Delightful Daisy*

          I read it that way as well :-) I am finding this fascinating because my family always starts a phone conversation with the hello, how are you, fine how are you, fine and on the conversation goes. I’ll sometimes say great or crappy but usually it’s just fine. My automatic response is “fine thank you and how are you”. I also almost always start out phone conversations with this question, personal and professional. I’ve never really thought about if it’s authentic or that it could cause someone discomfort. Thanks for your question, OP, as it’s given me something to think about. And I love the various responses people are giving, especially the socks one.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        Q: Sup?
        A: Sup!

        :-) With head nods.

        *sup is the squished contraction of “What is up?” but requires no answer of what is actually up.

        1. Ramona Flowers*

          Where I live (south east England) it’s:

          “Alright. Alright?”

          None of those mean anyone is saying they are alright.

          1. Tess McGill*

            Funny story! I lived in south west England for two years (Hampshire). My BFF would come over every day and when I answered the door she always said, “Yalright?” (which I took to mean “are you alright”). For the first (entire) year of this interaction, I was convinced that she was asking me if I was okay and that she was truly and genuinely concerned with my well being. I found this so wonderful … so in my head I was thinking, “British people are incredibly warm and friendly!” (they are). After a year, I finally figured out that what she was really just saying was “Hello”. I still smile when I think about it, and I miss her dearly.

    4. Naruto*

      I was going to suggest this, too. “Hey, how are you?” is a perfectly fine response to “how are you?” It’s just an empty greeting, not a real question or a call for a conversation about it.

      1. Cordelia Vorkosigan*

        Yeah, exactly. It’s not a question; it’s a greeting. Saying “how are you?” is exactly the same as saying “hello” or “good morning.” All it requires is a polite acknowledgement of the other person’s existence. Replying with the same phrase back is perfectly fine.

        Especially at work. With close family/friends, “how are you” might really be a genuine inquiry into your well-being. With co-workers, not so much.

    5. Turtle Candle*

      This actually totally works (and is fairly common, I think, once you start listening for it). It’s sort of like thinking of it as a more spelled-out variant of “Howdy”–which after all started as a contraction of “How do you do?”, too, but despite its origins it’s used as a general greeting and it’s totally normal to reply to “Howdy” with “Howdy” back, or with “Hi there!” (If you’re in a region that uses howdy at all, that is.)

      “How-are-you” “Fine-thanks-and-you” are, despite being written as separate words, rapidly moving in the same direction. It’s not a question and an answer, really, or at least not mostly. It’s a pair form of social niceties. This happens constantly–“goodbye” is, I believe, fairly well-documented in its historical etymology as a contraction of “God be with you,” but time has worn it down to a nub that means nothing more than “this is the standard leavetaking phrase,” and even highly religious folks (or, for that matter, staunchly non-religious folks) are unlikely to think of it as a religious phrase.

      The vast majority of people won’t even notice that you didn’t answer the question IME, and even the ones that do won’t take offense to it. Or, well, if you reply to “How are you” with “How’s it going?” and someone gets all pushy back like, “You didn’t answer my question!” you can be pretty darn assured that they are the one who’s going to come off looking bizarre, not you.

    6. Mamunia*

      Yes, usually the person will preface “how are you” with some sort of greeting so I just treat the whole thing as a greeting. Them: “Hey, how are you?” Me: “Hey!”

    7. commensally*

      Yes, this! This is also particularly useful if you want to head off the possibility of follow-up questions about how you are.

      I also sometimes remember a book I once read that had a parody historical “fact” about how the whole thing is a remnant of an ancient Pagan tradition honoring the elder gods Heya, Doon, and Haryu, and the whole “how are you?” is just a back-formation from that. (Obviously not true but when I am feeling particularly annoyed with the emptiness of the question I greet people in the names of Heya and Doon instead and it works just fine!)

  5. Lady Jay*

    I have a colleague who replies to “How are you?” with “Better than I deserve!” which I hate , in a pet-peeve sort of way. All I’m doing is acknowledging his existence, politely, and he’s using it to make this huge philosophical point about the world and perpetual optimism, way too much for when I bump into him randomly on the stairs. “How are you?” doesn’t need to be an authentic, in-depth conversation every time; a “Fine, and you?” is a great rejoinder.

    1. "Computer Science"*

      Is your colleague waiting for someone to light their garbage can on fire? We can arrange for that, but what an opportunity for them to learn to ask for things directly.

    2. M_Lynn*

      I really feel for you. “Better than I deserve” would drive me insane. There are some weird connotations of guilt and grace and mercy with that, though I may be particularly sensitive after many years of Christian school.

        1. LizB*

          Now I want to reply to “How are you?” with “Hashtag blessed!” Only with people who’d find it funny, though.

          1. Tobias Funke*

            Sometimes I say “hashtag blessed” and people don’t realize I’m making fun of them.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I do this, too! I had neighbors with a tongue-in-cheek #blessed doormat, and I was always on the fence about whether it was peak obnoxious or freaking brilliant.

        2. AllTheFiles*

          I had a customer who would use the word blessed in no less than 50% of his sentences. “How are you?” – “Can’t complain, I’m blessed.” “Thanks, have a great day.” – “You have a blessed day!” I wanted to pull my hair out every time I saw him.

    3. strawberries and raspberries*

      I’m a jerk, so if someone said that to me I’d probably reply with, “Sorry I asked!”

      1. Why Don't We Do It in the Code*

        That’s the greatest response, strawberries and raspberries. I’d use the same response to that weird Sad Sack thing. So I guess we’re both jerks!

    4. Hermione*

      That makes me wonder what he did that he expects some sort of epic karmic retribution to fall on him at any moment, and whether my accumulated karma would grant me the popcorn I’d want on hand when it finally does…

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        It’s like a ramped up version of “Mustn’t grumble”–like the moment his constant vigilance falters and he issues the mildest complaint, karmic retribution will descend from the skies with a flaming sword and remind him how good he had it five minutes ago.

        1. SarahTheEntwife*

          Yeah “mustn’t grumble” to me has a more universal “eh, we’ve all got stuff we’re dealing with but I’m alive and I’m here so let’s get on with things” feel, whereas “better than I deserve” seems to want some sort of reassurance that they’re not a horrible person or something.

      1. Lady Jay*

        Also to Artemesia & Phantom below. I asked my colleague about this once, and he seemed taken aback by the connection, so I don’t think it’s (deliberately) a Dave Ramsey thing. I really do think that like M_Lynne points out above, it’s coming out of the weird grace/guilt mixture common to some conservative Christian schools. It’s shorthand for a whole bunch of theological statements, not all of which I hold in common with my colleague.

    5. Artemesia*

      Better than I deserve is the catch phrase of a radio financial advisor — probably picked it up there. I actually kind of like it, but any of these light rejoinders is fine. What you don’t want to do is come across as a middle schooler who is upset that people don’t really care about you when they ask how you are. As Alison noted, this is a ritual phrase to grease social interactions in relatively impersonal settings. Please (if you please) pass the salt or get the TPS Reports in my Friday does not allow you say ‘well I don’t please, so I won’t do it.’

      1. Not So NewReader*

        ‘well I don’t please, so I won’t do it.’

        Oh, but how many of us want to tell the truth in these instances! lol.

    6. Phantom*

      This is a response that the personal finance guru, Dave Ramsey, likes to use. I have a co-worker who likes to use it, so I asked if he was a fan, and it turned out he was. I don’t care for the phrase myself, but I thought it was cool to hear someone using it and guess where they got it from.

    7. Gandalf the Grey*

      I recall a good friend utilizing a similarly bewildering salutation on the celebration of his eleventy-one birthday before announcing his last great adventure. Perhaps your colleague was present at that particular event and mistook the saying to be vaguely positive as it seemed to confound most present.

    8. twig*

      This just sounds like another “canned” response to me along the same lines as “I’m not dead yet” or “its’ going” or “could be worse” or “could be better. I don’t get the frustration.

    9. Taylor Swift*

      There’s a cashier at my local big box store whose line I always avoid because he replies to every “Good, how are you?” with the same long, canned, sing-songy response and it drives me crazy.

    10. Cranky HR*

      I believe that “Better than I deserve” is a Dave Ramsey catch phrase. Another I’ve heard is ‘Any better and I’d be twins.”
      I usually answer Just Ducky! and if I want to go on I add – cool and calm on the outside, and paddling like hell underneath!

    11. ancolie*

      I’d be tempted to reply to that with, “if you say so!” (tone of voice varying from cheerful to cheerful-but-still-“yeah, sure, whatever”).

    12. Djuna*

      I would be so tempted to follow up with a sugary-sarcastic “Bless your heart” whenever he said that.
      My Texan co-workers have taught me a little too well.

  6. Aspie Girl*

    As someone with Aspergers, this was a thing I struggled with until I received similar advice. All small talk feels weird to me because it feels slightly dishonest or deceptive, but now I just stick to the script. It’s all just variations of hello.

    1. TeacherNerd*

      I understand what you mean, but I think it can be helpful to remember that no all conversations have to be deeply meaningful. It’s not dishonest; it’s simply recognition.

    2. Jen*

      One if my best friends has aspergers as well and back in high school he had this little card if standard responses he would memorize for standard social interactions like these. He has managed to do very well both in his job and with friends so I think that effort paid off for him. The secret is, I think this stuff can be hard and even if it feels fake, the effort and ritual is often what counts, and that can be learned.

      1. Fictional Butt*

        Right, and I think one important thing to remember is, EVERYONE is using a script. Even people who don’t have Asperger’s and don’t have a literal card of standard responses are just using the standard responses they’ve learned. I understand how, if you’re naturally a socially awkward person, you might think there’s more to it than that. But there isn’t!

    3. Tau*

      I can sympathise, as another Aspie. I had a lot of trouble with this when I was younger. (Honestly, I still struggle to say just “fine” if that’s not how I’m feeling, so I use a lot of the shallow-yet-honest tricks mentioned above – “having trouble believing it’s Monday already, what happened to the weekend?” or “cursing the weather” or the like.)

      I came to terms with small talk in undergrad linguistics, when my linguistics professor mentioned that one of the theories of how language developed is that it was a replacement for grooming as a social bonding ritual among primates. Somehow, this made it make sense to me – as Alison said, what you’re communicating when you say “how are you?” isn’t “I am deeply interested in your general well-being” but “hi, I’m a human! I acknowledge you as another human! We’re members of the same nebulously-defined tribe!” And of course lack of reciprocation is going to be met with deep suspicion (are you not a member of my tribe? are you rejecting me from the tribe?!) Small talk still doesn’t always come easy and I’m still prone to literal answers to questions that weren’t meant to be taken that way, but when in doubt I imagine chimpanzees picking lice out of each other’s fur. :)

      1. Kate, Short for Bob*

        Yes! This! I’m not on the spectrum but I do default to literalness, and knowing this as a teen would have made things much more comfortable :-)

        1. tigerStripes*

          I default to being very literal, and it has taken me a while to get over this question being a pet peeve for me. Currently, I almost never ask someone how they’re doing unless I actually want to know or if they asked me first. If someone else asks me, I figure that person probably values this social ritual and will appreciate me asking it back. I just remind myself to say “OK. How are you?”.

      2. Dinosaur*

        I’m a linguistics minor and every time one of these kinds of questions comes up I want to recommend a ton of scholarly articles about scripts and the function of small talk. The meaning isn’t in the words, it’s in the ritual.

        1. Batshua*


          I’m aware that the meaning is in the ritual, but like, a comparison of how folks do it around the world or an in-depth discussion of small talk with strangers vs small talk with people you know …

          This is SUPER interesting!

          1. Dinosaur*

            If you have access to journals, look up anything related to Biber’s work on discourse analysis; he’s pretty much the father of discourse analysis and corpus techniques and that entire field would probably be fascinating for you. Evelyn Hatch wrote a great book on communication theory called “Discourse and Language Education” including scripts. Linguistic textbooks on second language learning (typically for teaching English as a foreign language or for language instruction) tend to have script comparisons between different languages. As for the difference between small talk with strangers and small talk with people you know, register analysis can talk a lot about that. If you look at the “register (sociolinguistic)” Wikipedia page, you’ll find a ton of stuff and probably get lost in a Wikipedia time-sink.

          2. Elizabeth H.*

            Thank you Dinosaur!!!! I find all of this so interesting. I feel like almost all work/advice/etc questions end up just boiling down to COMMUNICATION. So it’s useful to consider all of these themes.

      3. Gaia*

        I’m not on the spectrum and neither is my nephew but we had to teach him these rituals quite explicitely because he was born deaf and due to a number of influences he had no way to mutually communicate until he received implants when he was 3 so he missed a great deal of the “learn by observation” phase. Putting these spins on it has helped him to understand (he’s nearly 10 now) and move through the intricacies of social interaction more seamlessly.

    4. Anononon*

      To put a spin on that, as someone likely on the spectrum, I feel much better when people do these specific dances of social niceties. I’ve learned to get by by adhering to these scripts and I get thrown when I hear something different.

    5. Danae*

      It took me a long time to learn all of the social scripts, mostly because for me (as someone on the spectrum) that’s not what conversation is -for-, you know? And I hear you on it feeling dishonest. I just tell myself that though it may feel like lying to answer “I’m fine, how are you?” rather than taking thirty seconds to do a self-inventory and come up with the actual answer, it’s not considered lying because it’s a social script.

      (I once counted up the number of social scripts I have memorized. It’s right about thirty total, and it covers about 90% of my interactions with people. My most recent memorized script is “acknowledging people you meet coming the other way on hiking trails”, and luckily for me that one is short and mostly nonverbal.)

    6. writelhd*

      My husband is also on the spectrum and this exact situation is one of the remaining times when that becomes evident to those who aren’t his close friends, because he too really hates that small talk is not a “real” conversation. He will, grudgingly, respond to a “how are you” with “fine” in the most high-stakes of situations (like job interviews or meeting my parents), so I know he gets the concept, but in contexts he deems less critical he is known to toss in a bizarre non-sequitur instead (“trying to grow a tail” is one of his favorites) especially in the pre-meeting kind of social situation where “how are you/how was your weekend/how’s your kids” kinds of questions offer a little more time for conversation and carry slightly higher obligation for a longer answer than “fine,” but still have polite boundaries to be observed.

      1. Anonacademic*

        Ha, I like his style, though I also would probably have a cringe attack if my spouse did that frequently.

    7. meat lord*

      I was thinking very much that this LW’s take on small talk reminds me of some autistic folks I know.

  7. Unexpected Dragon*

    I have two responses I like to give when I don’t particularly feel like sharing on a day when ‘fine’ wouldn’t be accurate:
    1) “Oh, hi, good morning!” Acknowledges the fellow human, but doesn’t get into feelings. If that’s all the situation calls for, it’s totally friendly and works.
    2) “I’ll be way better after this coffee!” Pretty much always true and honestly implies that my day may be a mess, without inviting commentary or further conversation.

  8. HR Manager*

    I also think you may be appearing rude with your current interactions. All the suggestions Allison proposed are sound.

    OP, may I suggest you go to counseling? It seems like you’re in a very difficult place emotionally and talking through it with a professional may be super helpful. I speak from experience so please don’t take this the wrong way.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, it does come off at best as very strange or judgey. I don’t know how many people I have worked with who would just GLARE at others when they said “how are you” or any other pleasantries.
      It would go right around the work place, “Oh Jane is glaring again, better stay away from her.”
      New hires would ask, “Is everyone here like Jane?”
      Depending on the workplace Jane could become the butt of a few jokes (people who feel hurt do this) or Jane could just end up being ignored.

  9. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

    Somewhat OT: My FIL, who was an immigrant, never did well with this interaction. In his culture, you only asked “How are you?” if you ACTUALLY WANTED TO KNOW. It made retail and restaurant interactions quite amusing for the rest of his (very American) family.

    To the OP: Alison’s advice is sound. Treat it as a pleasantry, not as an actual question. I know this is somewhat of a mindset shift.

    1. Marcy*

      Yes, in my culture “How are you?” means you’re asking after a person’s health. Very odd to ask that and then keep walking without waiting for a detailed answer. Whereas “Hi, how are you?” (Hi, I see you, person I work with!) and then walking on is perfectly normal.

    2. MegaMoose, Esq*

      Before I was instructed on the Swiss-German grüezi/viadaluaga exchange I would try and ask after people’s health as a greeting. It got some weird looks, then the “ah, American” realization.

    3. Nolan*

      Yes, an acquaintance of mine recently shared a chart breaking down common American small talk phrases and their “translations”, commenting how that was the hardest thing for her to learn when she first moved here. And she’s an English professor!

    4. Jen RO*

      I learned about this “ritual” from AAM, actually! I now know that I have to make a conscious effort to go through the “hi, how are you, fine, you, great, ok” thing with my boss and other American coworkers. I wonder if they thought I was super-rude before…

    5. The Framing Queen*

      I once had a colleague from another culture who, after asking me how I was, followed up with “and your parents, how are they?” She was sincerely interested in the answer despite having never met my parents.

    6. Cassie*

      My mom (an immigrant) will answer cashiers’ “how are you?” with a “good, and you?” – as was probably taught to them in their ESL / adult school classes. She doesn’t see the point in all those “how are you?” and “good morning!” greetings. In her home country, cashiers at regular stores don’t greet you with stuff like this. Only at high end department stores or fancy restaurants where they are super sugary with their “welcome!”

  10. MegaMoose, Esq*

    I feel you so, so hard on this. I struggled with those little hallway exchanges and sometimes still do (and we won’t even mention passing strangers on the sidewalk, ug). I’ve honestly found it easiest to just push through the script every single time. As Alison said, it’s a social ritual, and I find that practice and repetition are the only way to take the edge off.

  11. Anu*

    I sometimes wish we could revert to the old English upper class “How do you do?” and its response “How do you do?”. Removes the pretense that is really about finding out how you’re doing and more just a greeting.

    1. Michael*

      I reply to “how’s it going?” with “hey, how’s it going?” for this reason, and people don’t have any problem with it.

    2. Gen*

      Yes I live in an area where “alright?” said by both parties with a nod is the greeting version and “how are you?” means you need to settle in because the person greeting you wants to tell you aaaaall about how they are (they may or may not care how you are haha).

      OP might want to practice “alright. You?” as an answer that rolls of the tongue and is a bit less definite than ‘fine’

      1. Nolan*

        “Alright, you?” was my default for a long time. At my last retail job, I had several customers get like, kind of upset (???) by that response for some reason. Like, I guess not saying you were “good” was some kind of social sin in their eyes. I started mixing in more “pretty okay”s and “can’t complain”s, which in my mind express the same state, but seemed to not trigger that response for whatever reason. Incidentally, I haven’t caught any lip for “alright” since then, so I must just have some amazing luck getting those picky customers!

        I usually respond with either “(short answer), you?” or “hey, how’s it going?” “It goes” is usually reserved for long or busy days.

        And OP, if it makes you feel any better about the social ritual aspect of it, I even greet toll booth attendants with “hey, how’s it going?” I don’t expect an answer, I’m just trying to be friendly.

        1. SarcasticFringehead*

          Some customers get really upset at any implication that you’re not constantly over-the-top thrilled that you have a chance to interact with them (and of course, part of working retail is providing a pleasant experience, but part of being a person in the world is not expecting every service person you interact with to be thanking a higher power that they got to be in your presence today).

          1. Not So NewReader*

            One place I worked, customers were up set because they thought “have a good one” was a sexual reference.

    3. Ramona Flowers*

      You can still use that if you’re a child meeting an adult – or another child in front of an adult – for the first time.

  12. EJ*

    When people ask me this I always give them a real answer, rather than “Good, you?”. My thing is… don’t ask me how I am or how my weekend was if you don’t really care! :)

    1. DrPeteLoomis*

      I mean, I think it’s fair to answer the “how was your weekend” question with a real answer, because that generally signals that the person is trying to open up at least a tiny conversation with you. That’s different than “how are you”, though, and saying that people who ask this don’t actually care about your response is a mischaracterization of the interaction. As Alison and other commenters have said, the how are you/fine/how are you interaction is simply a greeting. It doesn’t mean that the other person doesn’t care, it just means that they are engaging in a completely distinct social nicety.

    2. Ramona Flowers*

      Sorry but you’re kind of ignoring norms here. This is okay to do if and only if you’re alright with being thought of as an over sharer because, rightly or wrongly, that is what’s going to happen.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But you’re playing by different rules. You know that “how are you?” in some contexts means “hello, I see you” and you’re over-sharing in a way that isn’t desired in order to make a point … but the point you’re making is just likely to make people feel a little uncomfortable with you.

    4. Sylvia*

      When people do this, I take it to mean they’re irritated at me for using a social script that most of them know means “Hi, fellow human! I hope you are generally well.” It can seem a bit condescending.

    5. Ramona Flowers*

      Actually there is someone in my office who does this and is distracting people so much with her long monologues about exactly how she is that people are on the verge of complaining.

      1. JamieS*

        Lets back up this bread truck, are the people wanting to complain the same people who engage your​ coworker?

    6. Not So NewReader*

      The problem comes in is that people might think that you are putting them down or you think they are somehow less than. I am not sure that is what you want them to think.

  13. Pam*

    I will often say ‘peachy keen’ just to change it up.

    I think that in most work situations, you are safe in assuming that it’s just a different version of hello.

    1. Parenthetically*

      Yes! “Swell,” “dandy,” and “peachy” are all in my regular rotation.

    2. not really a lurker anymore*

      My manager sometimes uses “Fine as frog hair” esp if he’s in a VERY good mood.

    3. snarkalupagus*

      Never underestimate the grin power of a cheerily delivered, “Groovy, thanks!” as you walk by without slowing down. Even if I’m having a legit crappy day, it feels like a little act of rebellion against the crap because it almost never fails to elicit a smile from the other person. It works for me as a good “fake it till you make it” trick when I need a mood boost. (“Peachy-keen” is my alternative here, which is what prompted the comment.)

    4. Duck Duck Møøse*

      Changing it up to amuse yourself makes the whole social contract less tedious, IMO. I’ve responded that things were “going swimmingly,” just to see what reaction I get. I’m an introvert, and I really don’t want to start the whole dance in the first place; if I must play, I want to have fun sometimes. I might try using “copacetic” some time. :D I’ve only said that to friends. Usually I respond hi, hey, or fine, then ask them the same.

  14. MadGrad*

    I know that the typical expectation of “how are you” is a “fine” response, but I’ve always responded with a very brief (think five words) sincere response. For example: “eh, been better”, “Not great but I’ll live”, “same as usual” or “Doing FABULOUSLY” if you want a bit of ham. I try to not lead, and usually people can either dig for more or end it with a “aww, well, hope you feel better!” if all they want is the acknowledgement.

    Does that sound acceptable?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, some of those require the other person to express concern if they don’t want to be rude, which then turns the interaction into something other than a quick hallway hello. No polite person is going to just keep walking after you say “not great.”

      1. MadGrad*

        Maybe it’s the tone I use for it, but I’ve honestly had a lot of brief “aww, I hope it gets better!” or “good luck!” responses from people I know without major pause. I think tacking on some sort of “it’s okay though” after something like “been better” helps.

        1. Elizabeth H.*

          This would definitely weird me out. I agree totally with Alison that saying things like this require the other person to express concern if they don’t want to be rude. It would also make me think the other person was emotional or fond of oversharing or wanted to complain. It’s like someone says “Hi” and instead of saying hi you announce “I’m having a lousy day.”

          1. MadGrad*

            I was discussing this with a friend and we agreed that WHO we say it to might make a difference too. If it’s someone I never talk to or don’t really chat with at all, neutral. If it’s someone I chat with or generally am friendly with, it just seems cold to not actually interact with them in a meaningful way or inform them about something that’s probably going to show in our interactions (if I’m stressed or tired, telling them briefly let’s them know that I’m on top of things but might not be as responsive as usual, for example).

            I think in general I might be more blunt than others here, but if it really bothers anyone I’d expect them to just switch to “good morning” with me (tying in to the ask vs tell in today’s INC letter).

    2. Fictional Butt*

      I think one thing to keep in mind is that “Fine” is a neutral response– it doesn’t necessarily suggest you’re doing great but it doesn’t suggest you’re doing terribly, either. A lot of the ones you suggested are negative. That’s ok once in a while, but if someone’s standard response to “How are you?” is “Not great but I’ll live,” they’ll probably get a reputation as the office grump. (Which may or may not be what they want.)

    3. Triangle Pose*

      I’d say “Chugging along, thanks!”

      But more broadly and for OP and those similar to OP, this is not about “authenticity,” “sincereity,” “emotional honesty,” or anything that abstract, meaningful or broad. It’s just a greeting. Reframe it and repeat it for yourself that way and you won’t feel so stuck.

      1. Frozen Ginger*

        “Chugging along” is my go-to!

        It implies nothing about my feelings/emotional state, but it says I’m just going through life.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I think “speak when spoke to” outweighs deep sincerity.

        I worked with a woman who would not speak when spoken to. We had a job where on-going conversation about workflow was absolutely critical. Since she could not be relied on to speak when spoken to, I believed she could not do a major component of the job.

        I think not answering people is a big misstep, the rationale behind it has no bearing.

    4. Parenthetically*

      “Same as ever!” reads as neutral, but “been better” and “not great but I’ll live” absolutely come across as looking for sympathy or further questions to me. I’m sure others will have different interpretations, but I would feel like a total heel if I didn’t stop and follow up if someone said something like that to me.

    5. TL -*

      It’s generally okay as long as it’s not making them worry. For instance, “ugh, not a fan of grey weather,” or “Great! We just wrapped up Major Project!” would be fine. “Same as usual” would be fine, and “not great but I’ll live,” would be borderline – it would be dependent on delivery (say it while lifting your coffee and an arch look or if you’re clearly in the middle of fixing a sewer explosion and I’ll laugh. Say it sadly while you’re on the elevator and I’m uncomfortable.)

      A lot depends on delivery – if you respond with something that is way more intense than the asker’s tone of voice, that can be really uncomfortable. You can be honest (and “fine” is usually pretty honest; most people are fine most of the time) without baring your soul to someone who was really just wanting to have a pleasant polite interaction with you (so that you would feel like they valued you socially!)

  15. k*

    OP, I feel you. I have some social anxiety, am an introvert, and generally don’t like small talk, so the obligatory “How are you fine you good thanks bye” thing gives me major internal eye rolls. It feels silly to say words you don’t mean, but it takes 5 seconds and other people appreciate it. I’ve been knows to just say “Fine thanks” and end it, but I’m working on training myself to add the “and you?” to come off more friendly. Also, by asking them how they are, it puts the ball in their court to either just say “fine” as well, or engage in an actual conversation.

    1. Triangle Pose*

      No snark, I don’t understand why a generic professional norm that is really a just a greeting engenders major internal eye rolls at all!

      This reminds me of the business jargon talk, I can’t find it in me to be bothered, even on a miniscule level, by this. I’ve never thought that this bothered people, learning something new here, so thank you!

      1. Andy*

        I am equally baffled by all the annoyance to what looks like a benign interaction. I’m more annoyed to think that my co-workers are spending their bandwidth on something like this than any annoyance the actual thing would engender.
        also if you type any word enough it looks like a different language

        1. Areer*

          I am annoyed by it because it’s unnecessary talking that takes me out of whatever I was thinking about. Also, I’m nearly always caught off guard by it and not ready with the response. I do better if I can see the person coming down a really long hallway and have time to prepare or if they have headphones in and it takes them a moment to take them out and acknowledge me. If I’m turning a corner and someone just suddenly appears with a “How are you!” it takes me more time than is socially acceptable to come up with the response. I’d honestly rather just not be acknowledged in those situations beyond a nod or a smile.

          1. tigerStripes*

            I get annoyed because even though I know it’s a social pleasantry, sometimes it feels (I can be overly literal) like the person is asking me to lie to them. I know the right answer is “fine” or “good”, etc., and I know that this is just a friendly greeting, but it does annoy me. I work with computers, which seems to work well with my literal side.

            1. The Milk Is Not User Friendly*

              I get annoyed because I don’t understand why people need the social niceties (but then, I have been known to say I’d quite like to be a hermit and never interact with other humans).

        2. Princess Carolyn*

          Kind of to Areer’s point, I think some people spend bandwidth being annoyed by the interaction because social interactions in general take up more bandwidth for them than they do for others. It makes sense that introverts, who find social interactions more draining than replenishing, would rather save their bandwidth for more meaningful interactions.

          1. LQ*

            This is very true for me, but it’s much cheaper to use a script than to try to muscle through it fresh every time (that’s expensive!). So if I’m going to have to spend my social interaction fund on something I want to keep these kinds of interactions as cheap as possible by just going standard every time (I find a smile and a head nod is about 95% effective in the halls even when someone asks a question). It also keeps people from being able to force me to spend down a ton of energy just by being the first person I interact with. Keeping it cheap and by the script lets me decide where and how to spend the energy.

      2. Marcy*

        I think it’s because for people who are unfamiliar with the cultural norm, or who take things too literally (me!), it feels ungenuine and fake. Why ask how a person is doing if you’re just saying hi? Just say good morning if you want to say hi.

        1. Violet*

          I agree. If I initiate the exchange myself with “Hello!” or “Good morning!” then 90% of the time I get the same back and nobody asks me how I’m doing. Since the point of the interaction is just a friendly greeting, doing it explicitly is simpler for me too.

      3. Hanna*

        It reminds me of when I was a grocery store cashier and would occasionally be berated by people after I asked “How are you today?” because they knew I didn’t REALLY care how they were, and how dare I pretend otherwise?

        (I know that doesn’t describe the OP, but some people have extremely strong feelings about this kind of thing, apparently.)

        1. Not So NewReader*

          The irony is they KNOW your mind, they KNOW you did not mean that.
          Pretty judgey in my opinion.

        2. tigerStripes*

          I’ve always assumed the cashier is supposed to say things like “How are you today?” and that skipping it might irritate the manager.

          I really don’t like people who are rude to cashiers, waiters, and other people who have to be polite. It’s an abuse of power, and it’s usually counterproductive anyway.

      4. k*

        So I’m very introverted. Talking to other people and interacting physically drains my energy. To me, it feels like we’re wasting time and energy saying words that don’t actually mean anything. I’d rather just not say anything, or exchange a smile and nod, or a simple hello. I’d prefer spending my energy on conversations I actually want to have, or are necessary. This little interactions add up.

        That’s not to say I don’t engage in these pleasantries, nor do I plan to stop anytime soon. I understand that it’s how our society works, and some people actually enjoy it.

        1. LBK*

          I’m also highly introverted and most conversations are a drain on me, but a 2 second “How’s it going?” “Fine thanks!” exchange doesn’t even register. Don’t think of it as a conversation – it’s just a form of a hello, and if saying “Hi!” “Hey!” doesn’t drain on you, I don’t see why this would be different. You’re interpreting it too literally.

          1. AllTheFiles*

            I find that I can spit out various versions of “Fine, how are you?” without even having to think now. Same as if they say “Good Morning” or something similar. Practice over the years certainly helped quite a bit.

        2. js*

          i’m introverted too, but it drains me more to take pleasantries literally than it does to just do the dance of ‘great and how are you? great!’ and keep going. if i could keep everything to this, i would be golden because the ritual may be banal, but it’s straighforward and over quickly, and doesn’t require me to read social cues. it’s the actual small talk where i’m expected to say things and follow up with real questions that i can’t do.

          1. LBK*

            Exactly. Small talk is suuuuper draining to me because it takes so much energy to come up with ways to keep the conversation going. But I know a “how are you?” exchange is only going to last about 5 seconds and I won’t be expected to do anything but say “fine, thanks!” and move on, so it doesn’t affect me.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I am basically more introvert than extrovert. But I had to look at how tiring conversations can be and question why. It’s part of the reason I got interested in better self care.
              If the talkers around us are draining us then we need to make sure we are getting rest, eating right and so on. That energy has to come from some place and it’s up to us to make sure we recharge in as many ways as possible. I know I like me better if I have more rest. I can push myself along better if I feel fortified.

          2. Kelly L.*

            Yep. I read an article at Succeed Socially that’s kind of stuck with me, where they talk about how small talk can actually give you a chance to stall for time while trying to think of something more interesting to talk about.

          3. Nolan*

            I’m basically a social anxiety machine, so it’s the same for me. The ritual greeting is fine, I’ve memorized it, can swap answers as needed, etc. but going “off script” for actual small talk, or even catching up with friends, is so difficult. Usually I just say things are the same with me, what about you? And then let my conversation partner do some talking while my brain struggles to find something about my life that’s maybe good to talk about.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I have gone though spots in life where I actually prepared what I would say was going well before I left the house. Some days the best I could come up with was “The car is running well after a big repair job” or “The sick dog seems to be on the mend”. And it took me a few minutes to come up with that much. Other times I had nothing. Life can really suck sometimes.

        3. JB (not in Houston)*

          As another major introvert, I hear you. But the thing to remember is–you’re wrong that they “don’t actually mean anything.” They may not have their literal meaning, but they do mean something. And these small interactions using shared cultural language is a way to build connections, and that’s very important for humans, in the workplace and outside of it, even for us introverts.

          1. TL -*

            Yes, they mean a lot! People (intro- or extr0vert) are much more likely to enjoy things if they feel like the people around them are pleasant.

            More practically, in the work place, people are much more likely to go out of their way for you if they feel a pleasant social connection and/or are more likely to find value in their work if they like the person who they’re doing it for/with.
            I cannot count the number of people who have volunteered to do something small/simple for me that’s in their wheelhouse but technically my job because I am a generally pleasant person. If they’re already helping me, someone who likes me is much more likely to volunteer to do a little extra than someone who doesn’t, and social lubricant helps with that a lot!

          2. Falling Diphthong*

            Another introvert chiming in that these rituals are important, even though they require some energy.

            I also agree with the stuff above about language potentially taking over for grooming being an intriguing way to think about it. Chimpanzees don’t stand in line to use the elevator.

        4. oldbiddy*

          As a fellow introvert, I understand. I don’t find the quick workplace/shopping/etc pleasantries to be draining, but I have one acquaintance who just doesn’t get the hint and grills me with follow up questions which are equally superficial, all the while not letting me reroute the conversation to her. Inevitably, I see her when I am hangry and tired after work and it just sucks the life out of me. I try to be understanding because I feel like this is just her script and it happens to be ten times as long as everyone else’s, but it’s really draining.

      5. MegaMoose, Esq*

        Also, social anxiety isn’t about logic! I mean, my heart rate slightly increases almost every time I see someone walking towards me. I know there’s no danger, but my brain doesn’t.

        1. k*

          I think this is important and not something I expressed properly. I get that these are literal questions, and most people won’t pay much attention to my response. But even these simple interactions cause me a good deal of stress. Having a social anxiety + introversion combination, it’s hard for me to separate the two.

        2. Triangle Pose*

          Agree and I don’t think anyone is saying social anxiety is about logic. Just providing advice to reframe it to help the person with social anxiety.

      6. Duck Duck Møøse*

        I think why it bothers *me* is because I never signed a User Agreement for social norms. I wasn’t in the meetings when everyone decided this was a thing. No one asked me. Just because everyone else does it, why do I have to do it? It rankles that this rote custom *has* to be performed, and if you don’t do it, then you are labeled as unfriendly, or worse. Too many people act like, if I don’t play the game, and live up to acceptable (to them) expected responses, then I’m the bad person. I’m not a bad person. I’m just an introvert. :) Stop judging me against whatever rules, roles and rituals you live with. I’ll try to do the same. :)

        1. Andy*

          well, Duck, I can tell you with total honesty that I don’t know of anyone who *did* sign on…it’s an EULA. You ‘re in it and that’s just the facts and there’ no highway option, really.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Another way to look at is that you probably do benefit from and appreciate other social norms (for example, someone stopping to give you a jump start if your car battery dies or allowing ambulances priority on roads). You don’t like this one, but everyone basically agreeing to the whole group of them is what keeps the system more or less afloat.

        3. Triangle Pose*

          I really think that framing it this way and letting any of this internal indignation slip out will only be detrimental to yourself. I second Alison’s recommendation to think of this as one particular social norm you don’t appreciate but that the entirety of “User Agreement for Social Norms” benefits you.

        4. tigerStripes*

          Duck Duck Møøse, I know what you mean. This is one of the social customs I wish could be changed. I have to remind myself sometimes that at least it’s a harmless custom.

    2. Princess Carolyn*

      So, I tend to think of this exchange as a way of saying you care, in the most general sense of the word, about someone’s well-being. It’s not a lie — I really do want to know how you’re doing — but the situation dictates that I don’t have time to listen to a detailed answer. So, while it’s true that I don’t care about your life as much as your mom does, I’m not being insincere. Sometimes that little reminder that I’m not literally invisible can brighten up a tough day.

      It’s possible that I’m being ridiculous here, but I’m sharing my logic in case it helps you feel less annoyed about going through the motions.

  16. MuseumChick*

    Alison is spot on. This is just a social ritual where you acknowledge another person’s existence. I forget which ones, but years ago in college, we learned how in some language/culture the equivalent to “How are you?” is “Have you eaten?” and even if you haven’t and are hungry the current response is “yes”. It’s a way of saying “I see you, you exist and I’m acknowledging that.” The words, as Alison pointed out, mean different things in different settings/contexts.

    Other things you can say are:

    “Doing OK!”
    “Pretty good.”
    “Wishing it was still the weekend.”
    “Just waiting for the weekend to start.”
    “Hanging in there.”
    “Doing alright.”
    “Trying to wrap up this project, ugh.”
    “Looking forward to some wine when I go home.”

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      Yes, social lubrication rituals are almost never about perfectly reflecting your authentic emotions at this moment. Because everyone sharing those all the time doesn’t work.

      As Alison says, understand its casual use as “I acknowledge you, fellow human” “And I you.” It’s how we manage to cooperate in large groups.

      1. Hermione*

        Reading “social lubrication rituals” here ONLY brings about memories of the Duck Club.

      2. Nolan*

        A small, silly part of me wants to use “I acknowledge you, fellow human” on the next person I have to greet.

          1. Falling Diphthong*

            And there’s a line of introverts and aspies who would be pleased that we used the literal words for the interaction, so they didn’t have to track all the variations.

        1. CheeryO*

          My old boss used to greet people with a genuinely chipper “Hello fellow space traveler!” He was a quirky guy, and it usually made people smile after the initial “huh?”

        2. tigerStripes*

          I think we should wave at each other and say “Friendly greeting”. There, we acknowledged each other in a friendly way. Done!

    2. Lynne879*

      I like “Wishing it was still the weekend” and “Hanging in there”- they’re playful, neutral, but not implying that your life is wonderful or “fine.” They’re good alternatives to answer the “How are you?” question without admitting that your life may not be doing do well.

    3. Lucky*

      Exchanging these pleasantries with a bookstore clerk yesterday, she told me that her colleague responds “at least I’m not in Florida” which gave me a huge laugh. (She explained that her colleague is from Florida, subscribes to the “weird news always comes from Florida” mindset.)

    4. Rebecca in Dallas*

      Yes, commenting on the weekend and where we are in relation to it seems to be the standard answer in my office.

      “Not ready for the weekend to be over!”
      “Not bad for a Tuesday.”
      “Pretty good, we made it to hump day!”
      “Tomorrow’s Friday, so I’m good!”
      “Looking forward to the weekend!”


    5. Perfect Tommy*

      Whenever someone working at a restaurant asks me how I am doing, I usually respond with, “I’m hungry!” They often respond back with something like, “You’re at the right place then” or “I can help you with that!”

    6. Dankar*

      “Have you eaten?” is used quite a bit in Korean conversation, generally as a follow-up to “Hello!”

      I read somewhere that this is likely due to the severe food shortages they suffered through during Japanese occupation and the Korean War. I guess that’s a good example of a “meaningless” social interaction that actually has significant cultural/historical roots.

  17. Clumsy Clara*

    I feel you, OP. I don’t always feel like asking people how they are as a pleasantry, depending on my mood. When that’s the case I’ll say “I’m well, thank you!” as cheerfully as I can muster, because I think that fulfills the social interaction of “I acknowledge you” without being terse. Other responses besides “fine” are “OK”, “alright”, “Not bad”, “ready for the weekend!”

  18. TeacherNerd*

    Seinfeld had a bit ( in which he said he wished we could just go around saying “Acknowledge!” instead of the same, “Hi, how’re you!” over and over, especially if you keep seeing the same people over and over again throughout the day.

    I’m not a fan of “Eh, been better” type of responses, because it seems unduly pessimistic, and, really, it invites (to me) a level of interaction that I don’t usually have time for. (I’m a teacher at a large school; half the time I don’t have a free period so that 5 minutes to go the bathroom is really all the time I have; I can’t get into “it” with other teachers. And a “been better” response just seems unnecessarily complain-y to me. Your mileage may vary.)

    1. Lulubell*

      Agreed. I must be one of the few people who would prefer hearing a fake “fine” because I find people who answer negatively “oh, you know…” or “I’ll be better on Friday” or, sarcastically, “living the dream” to be unnecessarily negative and not someone I want to engage with further. I’m not saying that we all need to answer “great!” or even “fine” every time, but an “I’m okay” gets across that life could be better without seeming like a chronic drain. There are people in my office who answer so negatively all the time (why I keep asking, I don’t know, I guess I am just socialized to) and all I can think is that if they are so miserable, they should get a new job! And that they shouldn’t be complaining to me so freely. It does affect my professional opinion of them that they are so quick to put down the job, the day, etc. FWIW, I don’t love my job and really don’t enjoy most days in the office, but I prefer to take a positive attitude in these interactions. Otherwise every interaction gets precedented with a negative vibe. Once I get to know people a bit, or have more than a two-minute talk, I’ll go into more truthful details, but I prefer a bit of positivity on the surface, even if it’s fake. Then again, I firmly believe that “Fake it til you make it” is very much about mindset.

  19. Tiffin*

    Also know that if you feel better than fine, you can say something like, “I’m good, thanks. How are you?” Fine isn’t the only option.

    I think you are overthinking this (which happens to the best of us). Once you let yourself relax and accept that this isn’t being inauthentic, it’s just having a typical interaction, it will be easier on you.

    And you can always take advice from Captain Raymond Holt of the Brooklyn Nine Nine: “When people say good morning, they mean hello. When people say how are you, they mean hello. When people say wassup, they mean, I am a person not worth talking to.” :-)

    1. penny*

      Holt LoL! This was my first thought reading this letter! Still cracks me up!

      And I agree, there are lots of low key alternatives to fine. And I don’t think the “& you ” is always required if you’re truly just passing in the hall. Just I’m good thanks works.

    1. JamieS*

      My responses are typically nonverbal involving my coffee mug and a hand gesture. Actually looking back on it I don’t think I’ve ever actually verbally answered the “how are you?” question

  20. Parenthetically*

    For me, it’s helpful to contemplate that just about every culture has a greeting like this, and they’re almost all meant to be acknowledgements of another person’s existence/humanity that morph into true questions depending on relational closeness with the person asking. When I lived in China, a local friend confessed one day that he had absolutely no idea how to answer “How ya doin’?” from a Westerner. I chuckled and confessed that I had no idea how to respond to the local equivalent, which was “Have you eaten rice yet?”! It led to a really interesting conversation where it turned out that the conventions surrounding both were roughly the same — to a good friend, you’d give a more honest answer; to a coworker or acquaintance you’d say “I’ve eaten, have you eaten or not?/I’m fine, and you?”

    1. SL #2*

      I learned to speak Chinese before I learned English and I have never thought about how the literal translation is “have you eaten rice yet” but you’re right, it totally is. Now whenever I hear it, it’s just going to make me laugh.

      1. Cassie*

        The word “rice” can be used to mean “meal” – so the greeting is “have you eaten a meal yet”, and not literally “have you eaten rice yet?” My friend told me that in South Korea, they also greet each other with something along the lines of “have you eaten yet?”.

  21. Kyrielle*

    Other good non-response responses that can be honest depending: “Fair to middling!” “Okay!” (which for me mentally translates to ‘considering everything that is going on, I am managing okay’ when needed, and at other times means things are pretty okay, really) “Decent.” “Hanging in there.” “Pretty good.” “I got the teapot report done and in, so better!” (Must be said at least marginally cheerfully to work, IMX, and works best with something that actually is a little tedious/stressful until done, but strictly work items.)

    And instead of bouncing back “How are you?” consider, “And you?” or even more, “And you? How’s it going?” (In fact, if you can *lead* by greeting them with “How’s it going” then they may well bounce that back to you rather than asking how you are. And for that you can comment on work tasks, or say “It’s going” – as long as you say it neutrally or cheerfully, that answer will usually fly as a non-committal nothing-interesting-here response.)

    1. Kyrielle*

      “Getting by” is a good one I forgot, too. Ideally with a hint of cheer, but as long as you don’t deliver it with a doom-and-gloom voice or a heartfelt sigh, it should work.

  22. Tomato Frog*

    Sometimes I just answer “How are you?” with “Hi! How are you?” That might seem awkward, but it hits the same number of syllables and no one really notices because it all means the same thing (“I am acknowledging your existence.”). Never forget that “Howdy!” comes from “How do you do?” — but we all know it just means “Hello.”

    1. KarenT*

      This is common where I work. At first it caught me off guard that every time I said “How are you?” people would just respond with “How are you?” but it feels normal now. I guess it’s sort of like the British example posted above (How do you do?)

    2. INFJ*

      Totally normal. I often do and see people treat “how are you” as though the other person just said, “hello” or “good morning” and say, “hi,” or something similar back. It can definitely be treated like a rhetorical question.

  23. RabbitRabbit*

    My institution had someone, tragically passed away a year now, who would answer “Fabulous!” in an exuberant tone whenever asked this, but he was one of those rare people for whom you know he meant it. He could light up a room, yet managed to be a very productive executive, superb at getting different working styles to mesh together. He is deeply missed.

    I agree with the “it’s going!” (in a chipper-enough tone) in response to “how’s it going?” or similar tone for “can’t complain.” They’re a semi-acknowledgement of the social interaction that’s happening but not being too over-sharing or blunt. And do follow with a quick “you?/how are you?/hope you’re well?”

  24. Risha*

    As a deeply awkward person with social anxiety who’s innately bad at the whole social interaction thing, I have to say thank god for the rote response that the OP finds so inauthentic. Learning to do the automatic, “fine, and you?”/”hey, how’s it going!”/”morning!” means that, at 40, I’m generally regarded as a happy and friendly person. Which is basically true, but not something I was much able to convey at 10 or 16 or 20. Some (most) people understand body language and basic social interactions instinctively. The rest of us learn it by practice, practice, practice, and having a script that covers the basics most of the time is 90% of the battle. Deeper, more meaningful conversations are rarely appropriate at work, anyway, so it’s a good place to really ingrain those habits.

    1. Parcae*

      Oh, gosh, yes! I somehow got to adulthood without any noticeable social skills. I’m a hardcore introvert and I guess I just wasn’t paying attention? Anyway, in college, it started to interfere with my life, so I had to buckle down and learn the scripts. What’s the standard back and forth of a phone call? How do I order food in a restaurant? How do rote greetings work? What are the acceptable phrases I can use to accept or decline a party invitation? And on and on. Sometimes the scripts misfire hilariously (how many of us here have responded to the TSA agent’s “Have a good trip!” with a cheery “Thanks, you too!”?), but for the most part, they make life soooooo much easier.

      1. Risha*

        OMG, I have done the inappropriate “Thanks, you too!” approximately 9000 times. “Happy birthday!” “Thanks, you too! – Wait.”

    2. MegaMoose, Esq*

      Yes, practice! I’m 34 and feel much better about the script than I did at 24 and just starting out in the workplace. And forgetaboutit in school – I was flat out anti-social then. Now if only I could figure out the “unexpected public encounter with acquaintance” script, as I’m still at the “pretend I don’t see them or try and hide” phase. Maybe by the time I’m 40 I’ll get it down.

      1. Dinosaur*

        I’m a big fan of “Nice to see you here! No time to chat today, but I’ll see you [at work/in class/at Zumba/etc]!” for random public encounters where I have an option to not stop. But when I have no social energy left, I also pretend I don’t see them and hope they don’t notice me.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          The problem is mainly with people I don’t interact with regularly anymore, like former coworkers and classmates, where the idea of “catching up” is really anxiety inducing but I can’t guarantee I’ll see them later.

          1. Parcae*

            In my experience, “I’ll see you around” works even for the people you don’t expect to see around. Around where? Who cares. It’s a script; they’re probably not parsing your words for deeper meaning.

      2. Risha*

        I’m great with strangers these days, and pretty good with good friends, but I’m still stuck at stilted small talk with people in between. Maybe by the time I hit 50.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          Absolutely this (although I’d downgrade great to pretty good for myself). I’d add that I’m also pretty good with acquaintances in defined roles (co-workers, employees at my regular bar/corner store, etc) *when* we are performing those roles, but things get sticky if we step outside those roles. The one exception standing out in my mind being the time I ran into a former manager in costume at a renaissance festival while I was also in costume. That was too amazing to trigger the usual anxiety.

          1. Risha*

            I live in the same apartment building as someone who works in my position for my company in a different office. I’m more or less used to running into him while I’m dressed in pajamas or yoga pants and walking my dog. But this past weekend, he had with him two guys who I _do_ work with directly! One of which I know reasonably well as a work acquaintance! That was… less than optimal.

            (I managed a few minutes of small talk about how awesome my dog is, but a lot of my mind was occupied with “at least I never washed off my makeup from earlier, but it must be incredibly obvious I don’t have a bra on.”)

            That ren faire story is fantastic, though.

        2. MegaMoose, Esq*

          As a side note, I realized a few years ago that my lack of ability to maintain those in-between friendships spared me from the wedding attendance/participation deluge that afflicts so many of us in our 20s and 30s. I felt bad about it for a little bit and then remembered how I don’t really like weddings or have patience for most of the traditional wedding-related goings on. If I die without ever being invited to a bachelorette pub crawl, I’ll be fine with that.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        Maybe by the time I’m 40 I’ll get it down.

        Take heart. I remember talking to my father about being outgoing and feeling like I had gotten into the swing of life. I wanted to at what age does this happen. He said once he got into his forties he felt that he had a definition of himself, he knew more about who he was and what he stood for. Things that used to bother him stopped bothering him.

        It could be the power of suggestion, but I found the same. My give a damn about a lot of things just LEFT. If I stutter while talking to people, I simply say, “excuse me” regroup and continue. I used to almost fall apart if I stuttered. This is one example of many things that have changed for me.

        Take heart because there is a shift. It is coming. I suspect you are starting to shift already or the groundwork for the shift is in place.

  25. Danielle*

    I’m a HUGE fan of “I’m doing my best!” or “I’m doing my best…and that’s all I can do” if I’m not having the best of times.

  26. NW Mossy*

    Yeah, I think the key here is that you’re in control of what you share in response to these questions, and others will generally follow your lead. If you keep your answer short and sweet, you’re establishing the norm of “we are at the level of pleasant acquaintanceship; deep sharing and authenticity is neither expected nor required between us.”

  27. Rae*

    Here in the midwest we comment on the weather. A lot. “How are you today?” “I could do with a little less rain.” “My tomatoes are loving this sunshine!” “This heat is insane!” “Can’t wait for this cold snap to be over.” etc. Easy conversation starter if necessary without being personal.

    1. MegaMoose, Esq*

      I used to feel really self-conscious talking about the weather when I first moved to the Midwest after growing up in a place with very little weather variation, but I love it now!

    2. Areer*

      I hate the weather conversations because I prefer the winter and hate the spring/summer. So on a blue sky, no clouds, 80-degree day, people will say, “Isn’t it such a gorgeous day?” and I have to say, “Yeah!” when inside I am thinking, “This is the most awful day ever, where are my two feet of snow and darkness?”

      1. LQ*

        I am with you, though I don’t mind summer either. But when people smack talk winter I get to point out how great it is not having to shovel, and talk about how beautiful the snow is when it’s all soft and quiet everywhere.

        I like variety, if it was always the same it would be boring. (Which is the thing I say in the summer when people weirdly randomly bring up winter hate in July.)

      2. Howdy Do*

        But isn’t that just a more specific example of this whole “it’s a social script/adjust your expectations of how honest or detailed anyone wants you to be? Most people are commenting positively/negatively on whatever is likely to be the consensus just to make for a hopefully brief but pleasant social interaction. And really, I tend to like it to be less warm than other people so I don’t even have a problem with just replying to “it’s so nice the sun is out!” with “a little warm for me!” and it is still a super fast, cursory conversation. So either say “Sure, but I miss the snow!” and then move along. That way you don’t waste mental energy thinking about how you didn’t get to express your true weather preference !

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      I gather it’s the one negative of living in Hawaii–the weather is warm and pleasant, chance of rain in the afternoon, so not much to go on.

      Everywhere else I’ve ever been, though, was convinced that they had wildly changeable weather. “Don’t like the weather? Wait an hour, it’ll change.”

    4. Parcae*

      Oh, yes. When I moved to a place with almost relentlessly good weather, I nearly had a crisis over this. There isn’t enough variation in the weather conversations!

      1. ReanaZ*

        Ha, my experience as a midwesterner moving to a place with relentlessly good weather is that people STILL want to complain/comment on the weather constantly! “Oh man, that huuuuuge cold snap!” …the one where it went from 25C to 23C, you mean? Why yes, it is a BRUTALLY HOT 28C today, sure. That HORRIBLE light drizzle? Uh huh.

        It is endlessly amusing to me as someone who has lived with actual weather.

  28. BethRA*

    It’s also acceptable to stick with “fine/you?” “hanging in there/you?” with colleagues who ARE asking for something more in-depth if you don’t feel like sharing. The concern may be genuine, but that doesn’t mean we’re obligated to respond in detail.

  29. MCMonkeyBean*

    Most of the time “how are you” basically just means “hi!” It used to drive me crazy because there’s a guy who always greets people with that even if you are literally walking past each other in the hall so there is obviously no time to do the whole “I’m fine thanks, and how are you?” which usually left me feeling rude. Until I started just thinking of it as “hi.” I think a reasonable response in situations like this is just to say “hey, what’s up.”

    If someone actually comes up to your cube or something and greets you this way then they might actually be meaning it as a start to a conversation. Though usually in those situations I think people go with something like “how was your weekend?” which is a little more of an invitation for details.

  30. MindoverMoneyChick*

    This is great framing – ““I acknowledge you, fellow human!” I’ve never thought of it this way, and it’s so helpful. FWIW for year I worked with a very depressive, but talented programmer – “Dan”. He’s answers to “How are you?” were usually something along the lines of “well, I haven’t killed myself yet.” We all just accepted it as his quirk, but he was a known quantity and a good worker. Although none of had a great social script for responding to that answer so it was always awkward. You just had to brace yourself for the awkward that was “Dan” when interacting with him.

    I don’t know if he said things like that when he first started, because I came on after him, but I would guess not. So thinking about this using Alison’s framing.

    1. Andy*

      Why, Dan? Why? If you’re comfortable enough to quip out loud about suicide you probably aren’t suicidal….and that’s NOT COOL really at all to say.

      1. MindoverMoneyChick*

        FWIW he was very depressed. I’m sure he had suicidal ideation. He wasn’t quipping, he was answering the question authentically, if somewhat ruefully.

        Actually I do remember asking him one day how he was and he answered “super-terrific!” He had started to take active steps towards improving his life and mitigating his depression, We had a great talk about his new band and going to an event where member of REM were present. That still makes me smile.

      2. Batshua*

        … Not necessarily. I wouldn’t quip about suicide with just anyone, but with my friends who also have depression, that’s totally a way we discuss our days.

        But yeah, maybe Dan shouldn’t bring that to the office.

  31. Is it Friday Yet?*

    You could also say “Oh not too bad for a [insert day of week]. How about you?” In a professional context, it’s usually more of a greeting.

  32. No Name Yet*

    Absolutely what Allison said. I’ll add that I’m a therapist and at the beginning of a session often patients will ask me that very question. I usually go with a version of “fine/not too bad,” and then ask how they’ve been doing. It’s not that either one of us are being inauthentic, but they are acknowledging that I am also a human being in the room, and in my setting it would usually be terribly inappropriate for me to answer that question in any meaningful detail.

    1. Fictional Butt*

      Reminds me of every time I went to the nurse in middle school.
      Her: “How are you?”
      Me: “Fine, thanks.”
      Her: “Well then go back to class!”

      I could never remember that that was one situation when I actually WAS supposed to answer honestly…

      1. Rebecca in Dallas*

        Haha, I’ve visited urgent care a few times over the years and every time either a doctor or nurse will ask, “How are you?” in the polite-conversation tone and my answer is, “Not good or I wouldn’t be here.”

        1. Amy*

          That’s the worst!
          Urgent Care Guy: How are you?
          Me, pleasantly: Very well, thank you, how are you?
          Urgent Care Guy: Fine thanks, what’s going on today?
          Me: I’m dying
          Every. time.

      2. Mints*

        Haha I’ve done that as an adult.
        Dentist: How are you?
        Me: Good! Oh but my tooth hurts…

    2. Tobias Funke*

      Same! There is a big difference between the “how are you” or “how’s your week going” that I get from my therapy clients at the beginning of a session and the actual personal questions that might come up. One is an acknowledgment that they are a human and I am a human and one is actually something I need to shut down.

  33. The Inventor of Post-Its*

    I like to say “doing all right” or “doing well” depending on which suits the present moment better (with ‘all right’ representing anything less than ‘well’, sometimes a pretty wide range). It also helps me deal with my personal discomfort with the improper use of adverbs :)

  34. Lily in NYC*

    OP, you are overthinking this and making it all about you when in reality, no one cares. Just say “fine’ like everyone else and go on with your life. No one wants a real answer. It’s not a real question – it’s a meaningless phrase. You could answer with someone completely nonsensical and it’s likely no one would even notice.

    1. Insurance*

      Exactly. It’s a pleasantry and a way to acknowledge someone in your presence. I don’t want to ignore a person but I also don’t want to listen to a diatribe on the way to the coffee maker either.

      1. Areer*

        And I have zero problem with being ignored if it’s a situation where my being ignored doesn’t matter. If we both are in the kitchen at the same time and you’re getting coffee and I’m heating something up in the microwave, we don’t need to talk. You don’t need to acknowledge me unless you’re about to bump into me. We can just quietly co-exist.

        1. Gov Worker*

          If you are in the break room with another quiet one, good. But all kinda of people are in the world and the workplace, and crossing paths briefly with someone who communicates differently is not worth getting worked up about. You don’t have to marry them, LOL.

          1. Areer*

            I just hate looking stupid because it takes me longer than is socially acceptable to find the words to respond to someone when I’m not expecting to. If I go to the kitchen to heat up my food and am expecting to be quiet and get lost in thought, and someone comes up to make coffee and says, “Hey, how are you?” I have to physically shake myself out of my thoughts, remember that I’m supposed to respond, remember that “Fine, how are you?” is the accepted answer and then say it. Which takes a while. I’d rather just be quiet and not look stupid for taking so long to respond to a silly pleasantry.

          2. Howdy Do*

            And that’s really what it all boils down to- we need a script to basically satisfy the mix of people you have in the workplace. Some people really ARE that chatty and curious and would love to spend 3/4 of their work day getting the full rundown on all health issues/opinions on weather/grandchild updates etc. and some people would love absolutely no social interactions and without a ‘middle of the road’ script, everyone would be driving everyone more insane than they already do. Same with the break room- there are people who I’d love to make conversation with so I’m not just staring at my frozen meal spin in silence but some people I desperately hope that I can get out of there sharing as few words as possible (but we still say the bare minimum “how are you? fine, you?” so we feel cordial.)

    2. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

      Ha – now I want to come up with something completely nonsensical and say it the next time someone asks how I am. I always say “Good, you?”. Even if I’m very much not “good”.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Sometimes the tendency to over think this one is because of life issues.

      The longer answer can look like this:
      “How are you?”
      “My father died, my mother is sick, the dog ran away and the car broke down. How do YOU think I am?”

      Life can get really serious and when other people behave casually, that contrast can be stark to the point of being surreal. The real question could be ” how can this person be so casual, so disconnected, when clearly MY sky is falling?” In serious, hard times the lightness/ease of others can be extremely disconcerting.

  35. Government Worker*

    I usually have no problem with these kinds of interactions, but I recently went through a several-week period where I had a complicated situation that might have ended with being laid off, and it was theoretically confidential but was widely known anyway. So I had people from other departments asking me “How are you?” in much more serious tones than usual, but with an undercurrent of “I don’t know if you know that I know that you’re dealing with this thing, but I do and I want to be supportive, and I might also be fishing for information.” But I was also never sure if I was imagining the subtext, either. A couple of times I said things like a cheerful, “well, I’m still here!” but mostly went with ignoring the undertone.

    Thankfully, now I know my job is safe, so things can go back to normal.

    1. Fictional Butt*

      My mom had this situation with an acquaintance once. My mom was going through a stressful time and she ran into this person somewhere. The acquaintance asked “How are you?,” my mom said “Fine,” and the acquaintance’s response was “Are you really?” My mom was so offended– this was not someone she regularly talked to about her problems and she was upset by the implication that she didn’t look fine, and by the implication that whether or not she was actually fine was any of this woman’s business.

      So I think that kind of brings up another point here–it’s an inauthentic greeting that’s meant to be pretty general, and trying to get too deep with it can be offputting if that’s not what the other person wants.

  36. Jen*

    I think a lot more people than you would think find this kind of thing awkward. I think the best approach is just to treat it as something standard, like how you practice bus etiquette, for instance. You just perform the standard “Fine, and you?” or whatever variation you choose and you don’t have to treat it as anything more emotionally involved than a standard polite ritual. Society is full of these (how to behave when driving, how to be nice to your cashier or customer, etc.) Just treat it as that and I think you’ll be fine.

  37. Adam*

    I hear you OP. I’m someone who HATES idle chit chat to the point of near irrationality (please note I’ve never been particularly socially adept). I don’t have a good way of dealing with it, but if the person asking is standing nearby I’ll usually respond with some form of “I’m good. How are you?” If we’re passing each other in the hallway I will make eye contact and smile even if I don’t say anything. Doing things for the sake of social pleasantries kind of feels fake to me too, but people are genuinely trying to be polite even if they’d rather not get in to an extensive conversation at this moment.

    I think for me the goal is to continually be polite while making myself more open and approachable so people will be more inclined to want to actually talk rather than be two well-mannered ships passing in the night. Small talk is actually necessary as it gives the people in the conversation time to assess each other and decide if they actually want to converse more deeply or not. This can be frustrating to people like me who, frankly, don’t care what the weather is doing unless it makes the national news, but it’s how people are generally wired.

    1. N*

      +1 I have anxiety like OP and have never been good at making small talk with coworkers. I think I saw a comment insinuating that OP is thinking too hard about these interactions–but that’s also a side effect of social anxiety. Like Alison says, OP just needs to reevaluate their expectations from these interactions and just know that coworkers are trying to be polite.

      1. Areer*

        YES. As a fellow social anxiety sufferer, when people tell me, “You’re overthinking this”, my response is always “NO DUH.”

  38. Regular Lurker*

    This post is timely. One of my best friends died last week and saying “fine” in the hall to passersby this week felt like a lie. I needed this reminder about why this dance happens. I will continue to save honest answers for those who will appreciate them. Not because I’m being inauthentic, but because I am sparing myself and the person I am passing in the hall from true awkwardness.

    1. Anna*

      I’m so sorry. I’ve been on that weird dance where in your head you’re yelling how absolutely shitty things are but on the outside you have to say fine because it will just get weird otherwise. It really does feel like you’re lying. I hope you have a good circle of support.

      1. Regular Lurker*

        Thanks Anna. This is exactly how I feel. I am fortunate to have a good circle of support and truly caring coworkers who have been sympathetic but respected my privacy. The whole thing still sucks. I miss my friend.

    2. Clumsy Clara*

      I’m so sorry about your friend.

      A coworker I was close to passed away last month very suddenly. A few days after she died, I ran into a very friendly high school acquaintance who I hadn’t seen in years. He asked how I had been, and I sort of just word vomited on him about my friend dying (including the how, which he definitely didn’t need to know). Social convention is hard when you’re grieving.

      1. Manders*

        I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who’s struggling with this. I’m in a weird spot right now where I’ve just had to do a lot of things that are normally considered happy events very quickly and not in the way I originally planned because my mom has a terminal illness. The lead-up to my wedding was really hard because it’s such a common social convention to ask the bride-to-be for all the details, but my honest answer would have been, “I don’t even know what’s been planned for that, I let my mom make all the choices because she’s dying.”

        I think I did an OK job of keeping it together at work, but some of my coworkers are also on the socially clueless side and there were times I had to flat out lie to get through a minefield of a conversation.

      2. CheeryO*

        Been there. First day of senior year of high school – “Oh hey! How are you?!” “My aunt and uncle died in a car accident two weeks ago.” :\ Luckily that particular friend has always been wise beyond her years and was quick with some really kind words.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Ugh. This is hard.

      I have said, “Fine” and then silently in my head, “I will be in a little while from now” OR “But my life has been forever changed.”

      Sometimes it’s easier to say fine than it is to explain. Then other times I’d catch myself thinking, “If I say fine ONE more time, I am going to allow myself to run out that door and never return.”

  39. HisGirlFriday*

    OP, I have reached BEC stage with one of my co-workers, and I struggled on a near-daily basis not to ask her, ‘How can you possibly not understand teapot design when you have done it for 12 years?!?’

    That being said, when I see her in the break room in the morning and she says, ‘Hey, HisGirl, how are you?’ I respond with, ‘Fine, thanks, and you?’ or ‘Not thrilled about the rain, frankly,’ or whatever.

    It’s not an ‘inauthentic’ question. It’s a standard social convention that people do to acknowledge each other. I am deeply introverted, intensely private (my co-workers found out I was pregnant when I was 24 weeks along and could no longer hide the fact), and I struggle with refraining from speaking my mind.

    I think if you treat it as a real question and/or don’t acknowledge it at all, you are coming across as rude. It would help to reframe it in your head as, to quote Sheldon from BBT, ‘A non-optional social convention.’ You’re required, on some level, to acknowledge other people when they acknowledge you.

    If you truly can’t say, ‘Fine’ without feeling inauthentic, then PPs have had really good suggestions otherwise. And frankly, whether you’re within your probationary period or not, I would caution against sharing ‘intimate details’ at work. Once you share them, you can’t unshare them, and generally speaking, people don’t want to know that much about their co-workers.

  40. LR*

    You know when you watch a nature documentary and you see two birds or wolves or snails run into each other, and they coo or rub their necks together or, I dunno, emit hormones at each other just to be like “oh hey, you and I are both members of the same species and are establishing that we’re chill with each other?” This is just that, but for humans. Just imagine your coworkers are waving hello with their mouths when they say this stuff.

    As for a reply, personally I’m fond of ‘could be worse’ which is pretty much always true no matter how well or poorly you’re doing.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I really like this way of looking at it! (but I’m laughing because don’t we always say hi with our mouths?)

    2. LQ*

      It is the butt sniffing of the human world. And in that way I do actually prefer small talk to butt sniffing.

  41. Areer*

    I haaaaate this stupid hallway small talk because I’m usually thinking about something, and then someone passes me and says something and by the time my brain registers that it was “How are you?”, they’re already past me and I have to turn around and say loudly, “I’m okay! How are you!” The only way to combat this is that every time I get up, I basically have to already in my head be saying, “FINE HOW ARE YOU FINE HOW ARE YOU FINE HOW ARE YOU” so that I’m ready when it comes.

    Or worse, I’ve just taken a drink of something and someone says it as they’re walking quickly past me and by the time I swallow, they’re already halfway down the hall.

    Can’t we all just breeze past each other and not talk if it isn’t necessary? I don’t need to feel acknowledged by a coworker passing me on the way to the bathroom or while we’re both getting something from the fridge. Let’s just be quiet.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      There are a few people I work with who ignore everyone who say hello to them. They are seen as aloof, but that’s about it. If you truly hate it so much, do what they do – it will work out in the long run because most people will eventually ignore you back and you will no longer have to make small talk. There is one woman here who I completely ignore if I see her because I realize that’s how she prefers it. And it’s fine.

    2. LizB*

      I had this problem so much in college because I’m a super fast walker. I’d get within speaking distance of an acquaintance walking towards me, they’d say “Hey, how are you?” and by the time I was able to say “Good, you?” I’d be shouting over my shoulder. It was either that or start the interaction way earlier so we were shouting at the beginning instead of the end. Fortunately in my current workplace, we mostly just say “Hey” or smile at each other unless we actually want to stop and chat a bit.

      With the just-taken-a-sip-of-something situation, I have good luck with a wave or thumbs up, or I just don’t respond. People get it.

    3. Manders*

      I have the same problem! And when I’m walking swiftly in the hallway, it’s usually because I’m on my way to the bathroom, so I’m already a little distracted.

    4. Nolan*

      In literal passing in the hall scenarios I like to deliver a preemptive *nod* “hey” to acknowledge the person while signaling that I’m not feeling chatty. Usually the recipient will respond in kind and all that weird timing stuff is skipped entirely.

      1. Areer*

        The issue is that my eyes are typically looking down and I don’t see them in enough time to preemptively give a “hey”. They always get me first and I’m not ready for it.

  42. Insurance*

    “How are you?”
    Living the dream!!!! Tends to keep the answer to that question light-hearted and keep it moving. Not answering is rude, IMO.

  43. Undine*

    Although overall I’m “fine” with this interaction, I’ve found the “How are you?” question brutal when I’m really struggling with something that’s front and center. Like when the answer that springs to mind is “My sister just died” or some other overwhelming piece of news, I feel like a deer caught in the headlights. There’s this moment where the automatic answer – “fine” -springs to mind, and I have to see that it’s wrong and actively suppress it before I can find a neutral response.

    So I would say this particular question and expected response does exert the subtle expectation that you will be “fine” all the time. But that’s part of the cost of participating in the greater culture.

  44. Ann Furthermore*

    I like Alison’s comment that “How are you?” really means, “I acknowledge you, fellow human!” I have found that when I have to speak to a customer service person, my conversations with them are much more pleasant and productive if I begin the conversation with, “Hi, how are you doing today?” Sometimes the person I’m speaking with is genuinely surprised that I asked. They usually respond with, “I’m fine, how are you?” And I say that I’m fine, and that I hope they can help me.

    I do this for a couple reasons. First, and foremost, I feel for anyone who works in a call center, because it’s a thankless job, and people can be horribly rude and abusive, even though most often the person in the call center has no control over what the rules and policies are. They’re just the messenger with the unpleasant job of having to tell people things they really don’t want to hear. And second, I’m a believer in the old “You catch more flies with honey” adage, and sometimes, I’ve found that just being nice makes the person more willing to find a way to help me. Or, if I’ve been on hold for a long time, the first thing I’ll say when the person picks up my call is, “Oh my gosh, you guys must be swamped!” And again, showing a little empathy can go a long way to something being resolved in your favor.

    I’m not always successful though…I called United a couple weeks ago to inquire about a possible flight change and was told it would be a $200 fee. This really ticked me off (even though I know that this is how the airlines work, and they base everything off the class of ticket you buy), and I said, “Seriously? 520,000 lifetime miles with United and you’re going to ding me for $200? United has made at least $100K on my flights over the years, and I go out of my way to fly United whenever I can, and this is how my loyalty is recognized? There’s a reason that people hate the airlines, and why they will whip out their smart phones at the drop of a hat on a plane, and the reason is stuff like this.” I felt bad later, because the person I was talking to did not have the authority to waive the fee, but during the call I did make a point say, “I realize that you don’t make the rules. I’m saying all this because I know these calls are recorded, and I’m hoping my comments will reach the right person.”

    1. Observer*

      “I realize that you don’t make the rules. I’m saying all this because I know these calls are recorded, and I’m hoping my comments will reach the right person.”

      I do stuff like this a lot – I need to express my frustration with the company, but I don’t want to shoot the messenger. It’s neither useful nor nice.

  45. LabTech*

    If your answer to “how are you?” when you pass someone in the hallway is “fine” with no “what about you?” following it, you’re probably coming across as a little rude or brusque to some people.

    This is interesting, because I almost never hear a response when I reciprocate with “How about you?” To the point where I’ve stopped asking because it’s always awkward (and a bit rude imo) when they stop the exchange prematurely.

    1. Amy*

      Ah, there’s the difference. “How are you – Fine, How are you” can be considered a full circle (not a great one, but as comments here have suggested, we’re not looking for the actual answer here so much as the inquiry) It’s like Howdy to Howdy, or How do you do to How do you do, Inquiry to Inquiry
      Compare that to “How are you – Fine”, which feels weird and abrupt – Inquiry to Response only
      Probably the ideal is “How are you – Fine, How are you – Fine” (Inquiry to Response and back again) but when it’s a hallway quickie I think Inquiry to Inquiry (with the “fine” in there for it to bridge and help make sense) is pretty common

  46. Abby*

    Allison’s advice is spot-on. I understand why the words might seem insincere, but in brief, passing situations, it’s really just another way of saying “hello,” and deviations from the script might be seen as rude. Some of my co-workers say “Hey, how are you?” while walking past so quickly, that I have to blurt out “fineandyou?” as quickly as possible before they’re gone, so it’s pretty clear that they’re not really asking for my well-being.

    That said, I do have some colleagues that will give an honest and detailed answer if asked “how are you?” regardless of the context. Because of this, I tend to just say “good morning” or “hi” (in the afternoon) in passing to avoid the situation.

  47. Madeleine Matilda*

    I think Alison hit the nail on the head. This type of exchange is how we acknowledge each other. We have security check points throughout our building. When I come in in the morning I always say “Good morning.” and the guards reply. If I go through the check point in the middle of the building during the day, the guard and I usually say, “How are you today?” “Doing well, thank you. And you?” It just feels odd to me to pass by the guards and ignore them. I was raised both by my parents and at school to acknowledge people when you come into contact with them (as a child if an adult came into the room we were taught stand, be introduced, and shake hands).

  48. Alton*

    OP, I wonder if it would help to frame your responses in a professional context if you feel like you need to say something more than “Fine” and would rather not reference personal things. When a colleague asks me how things are going in passing and I want to be sociable, I usually don’t talk about personal stuff unless they are specifically asking about my weekend or something. Instead, I might say something like, “Pretty good! It’s great to have a chance to catch up on work now that the teapot expo is over!” Or “I’ve been really busy with all the end-of-year business, but it’s going pretty well!”

  49. knitcrazybooknut*

    Sometimes I dodge these interactions by pre-emptively saying, “Hello to you!” or something enthusiastic or random instead. It helps me to jump the standard train of How are You Fine How are you Fine.

    Other suggestions above are very good as well. Recognizing that ritual comforts some people, and this is really just a social ritual has helped me understand the need for this.

  50. Lora*

    Hey, every day at (workplace) is like a walk on the beach!
    It’s another day in paradise
    Living the dream

  51. Government Worker*

    Also, OP, it might help to keep in mind that inauthentic is not necessarily a bad thing. I have two young children, and a good chunk of parenting at this age is to try to teach them manners. I want my kids to apologize for hitting each other whether or not they’re actually sorry, to say thank you even when they aren’t not grateful, and to keep their clothes on in front of guests even when they would be more comfortable naked.

    Being social creatures who live and work in groups requires that sometimes we observe niceties or formalities or rituals that don’t reflect how we really feel. Inauthentic answers to social pleasantries are part of what make a professional workplace function smoothly, and that’s okay.

    1. LQ*

      This is a great point and yes, it is totally appropriate to not be all you all the time. Some days I feel like screaming in frustration, some days I feel like getting out of bed is the hardest thing I do (and some days it is), but if we all existed in a world where we were Bart Simpson level do what you want all the time we wouldn’t have learned about germ theory and would be still dying of the plague. So…I’m good with not dying from horrible diseases and that means not screaming in frustration, but refocusing my efforts into making the world better. That’s a good thing.

  52. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

    My answer is often “Oh, you know — living the dream” which I can modify to be breezy, cheery, or a bit sardonic to fit the mood.

  53. Amber Rose*

    As a side note, half the people aren’t listening. I basically never add the “and you?” part, I just say I’m fine and wait for them to get to the point. They will answer it anyway. “Oh, I’m doing good. Hey, about that email…”

    So honestly, I’d say you aren’t coming off as rude or brusque except to a small fraction of people who actually pay any attention.

  54. Cheesehead*

    I really hate this question and struggle with it (internally). Because to me, it always felt….not genuine to answer with the standard “fine”. I always want to treat it like a REAL question. Even though I know the social purpose of it, it still just feels weird to me. But it’s good advice to try to reframe the question as “I acknowledge you.”

    I, like others, get around it a lot by talking about the weather. “Hi! Can you believe this rain?” “Hi! I’d really LOVE to see some sun for a change!” I still feel weird for not answering the question sometimes, but it happens so often that I get over it pretty quickly. :)

  55. Felicia*

    The only time I struggle with answering “How are you?” is at a doctor’s office or other health professional, because I’m there because I’m not fine, but it’s so ingrained in me to automatically say fine.

    I took a sociology course in university called Sociology of the Everyday where we spent two weeks analyzing that when people say “how are you”, most of the time, they don’t really want to know how you are. It was fascinating.

    I never really say how are you to anyone first because it feels weird and unnatural to me, but whenever anyone says it to me, usually I say “not too bad, and you?”, because it seems more natural to me. I’m also a fan of “same old, same old”, because that could mean anything.

    1. Hanna*

      Same here re: the doctor’s office. I could be sick as a dog, and I would still say, “Fine, thanks.” It’s a tough habit to break!

      1. Kelly L.*

        “Fine, thanks! Anyway, I’m here today because I’m vomiting orange bubbles!”

      2. Felicia*

        I feel like doctors should ask “how are you feeling?” instead to avoid that.

        The last time I was at the doctor’s office I was like “fine…wait no i’m not, that’s why i’m here.”

  56. Marcy*

    My go-to response to this is “I’m good. And you?” This is also my way of figuring out who the grammar nazis are. I can’t count the times I’ve said this and the response has been:
    *EYETWITCH* “I’m WELL, thanks.”

    1. Vancouver Reader*

      I have to admit, I’m an “I’m well” responder because when I say fine, I’m reminded of one of my bosses telling me once that FINE stood for Effed up, Insecure, Neurotic and Exhausted. Which means I should say I’m fine more often. ;)

    2. ancolie*

      Oh HOH, I know what you mean! If they just naturally respond with, “I’m well!”, that’s totally different. But when they put an emphasis on the “well”, like they’re correcting you in addition to replying? FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUU—-

      1. Trillian*

        I just dig in. ‘Fine’ is idiomatic for my culture, and if I can resist correcting their idioms, they can resist correcting mine.

    3. Fifty Foot Commute*

      My boss and I have had this exact exchange every day for almost three years.

  57. OwnedByTheCat*

    In my workplace “how’s it going” or “how are you?” has a significant chance of being met with some dramatic variation of how busy/upset/tired/stressed they are, and it comes across as if my coworkers are competing to be the most overworked and exhausted member of the team. I really, really dislike it.

    Saying “fine” or “can’t complain” when maybe you aren’t fine or do want to complain is just a social formality but it’s one I’m pretty grateful for!

  58. I am now a llama*

    What I like to do when it’s an “I acknowledge your existence because it’s part of my job” is to give them an out of the box answer just to make them think a little. My favorites are:

    “I’m so awesome I can’t stand myself”
    “Doing ok by being careful”
    “I’m so fabulous I poop glitter, want some?”

    1. Emi.*

      What do you mean by “think a little”? Like, what am I supposed to think about when a coworker offers me glittery poop, exactly?

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          It’s like the Socratic method, with glitter. And poop.

          Everything doesn’t need to be a philosophic opportunity for people to contemplate the nature of thought and society.

      1. Emilia Bedelia*

        I would think about how best to avoid this person in the future.

        Now that I consider it, that seems like a great tactic!

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      And if you’re not in a fabulous glitter poop mood, you could try “I’m so low I have to look up to see down.”

  59. siobhan*

    You really can’t go wrong with a standard neutral response and a “You?” As in “How are you?” “All good, you?” If someone asks “how are you” and they really mean “tell me about your current situation,” and you treat it as an “I acknowledge you,” they’ll almost always just respond in kind and then ask more directly. The worst thing that happens in that case is some extra pleasantries were exchanged.

  60. Bend & Snap*

    Where I live it’s:
    How are you?
    Good thanks, you?
    Good thanks!
    aaaaand scene.

    Really, this is a social nicety and not something to get wound up about.
    If I really want an honest answer I’ll ask, “how’s everything” or “How are things?” but that’s not a hallway conversation, where the above is. Most times people don’t even stop walking.

  61. CrazyEngineerGirl*

    You could try thinking of their question in a different way. Instead of thinking of it as ‘how are you’ as a person on a personal level, try changing it in your head to something like ‘how is your work day going’ so that it’s less how are you as a person and more how are you as an employee. Your answers can be short, accurate, and not necessarily the standard fine like many of the suggestions here. If you change how you perceive the questions it might help you feel less genuine.

    On another note though, many people like myself, don’t associate their work selves as being genuine or authentic. What I mean by that is that I’m a version of myself at work, but I am absolutely not some authentic true-to-inner-myself version. As employees, we are paid to do a job. That job is generally not to be genuine to our true selves but to do our work and interact with our coworkers in a professional and pleasant manner. I realize that a lot of people won’t feel that way, but many do and you’ll meet a mix of them at any job. Personally, while it may seem harsh to some, if I got in depth and personal responses to a cursory ‘how are you?’ from someone that hadn’t become a really good work friend repeatedly, I would probably stop saying hello. A smile, nod, and ‘good morning’ (or equivalent) would be all I would risk.

  62. Stephany*

    I have a friend who responds to “how are you?” with “better for your asking.” I love that.

    1. The RO-Cat*

      I’ve recently stumbled upon the Italian “squillo”, which is a technological equivalent of phatic speech. It’s a mobile phone call so short that it is not meant to be answered, it remains a missed call. You know from the context its meaning (e.g. if you have a meeting with someone close at 9:00 and receive a squillo at 8:45 it means “I’m gonna be late”. At 9:03 it means “I’m in the parking”. If it arrives out of the blue and it’s from your SO, it means “I’m thinking of you”. A squillo can take an unlimited number of meanings). OP, if useful, think of these interactions as “squillo”. It’s not a phone call meant to be taken, it’s merely an acknowledgement.

  63. Argh!*

    From Louis Armstrong’s song, “What A Wonderful World”

    I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
    But they’re really saying I love you.

    Don’t be unsociable especially in a new job. Your coworkers mean well and they are welcoming you.

  64. TheBeetsMotel*

    As a foreign transplant to the US, I initially struggled with “how are you?” greetings, thinking people wanted an actual answer, and why did they want to know, isn’t that weird and personal? Took me a hot second to realize that it’s just a little social dance for the sake of acknowledging your fellow man. As such, I think professionalism and politeness do require both a “fine”, “not bad”, “good” etc, and a “how’re you?” in return. It’s not ungenuine to be this brief; that’s just all the steps the dance requires.

    Most work situations are unlikely to require a long delving-in to your personal life – I’d say it’s 90% used as a nicety, an 10% an actual question, and the 10% will be clear most of the time from context clues – your boss asking in a one-on-one meeting, a closer work friend as part of a longer catch-up chat, etc.

  65. Princess Carolyn*

    What a perfect breakdown! OP, I hope categorizing the same question into different meanings will ease your anxiety. It sounds like you may be a rather literal, straightforward thinker — which probably helps you in close friendships and romantic situations, I would guess.

  66. LQ*

    I’ll admit I answered this super authentically (badly) once. I had just learned two really horrible and tragic pieces of news on my way to work, so I stopped at my local regular coffee shop to try to compose myself a bit before I actually got to work. The woman who worked there asked “How are you?” and it just all came out like word vomit. I couldn’t stop it. It was horrible. I was embarrassed, the woman was incredibly kind and came around and hugged me and listened. And I couldn’t go back into the coffee shop for a month I was so mortified.

    The thing about being authentic there is it didn’t help me at all. I didn’t feel better. It didn’t improve my handling of the grief at the situation I’d been presented with. It didn’t help this poor woman at the coffee shop who really just wanted to make coffee and be pleasant. It just made it harder for me to go about my day.

    For me it was one of the keys pieces to realizing that having those scripts that people are mentioning above are super helpful at getting through life when you have anxiety.

    You don’t need to stop and assess, you don’t need to take that moment of contemplation that is emotionally expensive, you don’t need to decide what that person’s motives are, you don’t need to worry about what your motive display should be. You can just look at the nice logical flow diagram and go If “How are you?” Then “Fine, you?” And Smile End. Done. Going through the ok, I’m going to look into my innermost self and dredge up all my feelings to try to answer this rather than just telling myself it is ok to memorize and lean on the script is what made me break down. It is what made me way more anxious and stressed about every single passing and conversation. And it lets me spend all that energy on the real conversations that I do want to have that are emotionally expensive but worth it. This? This is more emotionally expensive to me than a howareyou/fineyou/fine/smile interaction, but this one is, hopefully, worth it to have and to lay things out a bit more and be clearer. So it is also about deciding where you want to spend that energy. The hundred plus tiny passing people in the hall and breakrooms? Not worth it. Script it is!

    1. Manders*

      Thanks for this perspective. I have to hold myself back from doing the same thing sometimes. I think I would also be mortified if I let it all hang out, even though that’s where my brain goes sometimes.

  67. mamashark*

    As AAM points out, it’s a phatic statement, and as such, has social meaning instead of literal meaning. Context tells you what kind of response is appropriate, but for most interactions, that’s going to be something along the lines of “fine, thank you, how are you?” The question and answer both are often just ways of saying “hey you, I see you and acknowledge you, and recognize that you have a part in my circle”. It’s not inauthentic, it’s just a part of our social contract to acknowledge the people we come in contact with each day. Beware of becoming that person who other people avoid asking “how are you” because they dread getting an answer that crosses polite boundaries.

    1. Gilmore67*

      I work on the ground floor of a health system. I see, maintenance people, dock people, lab people, people waiting for meetings etc… everyday, every hour, every min.

      There are a variety of greetings…. “Hi” “Good morning” ,” Rotten day I wish it would stop raining”, Hey could you look at this for me”, and the list goes on.

      I do not think anything of it and I am guessing the others don’t as well. It means absolutely nothing other than that statement and it just comes out of peoples mouths as basic acknowledgement of co-workers we see every day and basic pleasantries.

      ( OK the “I wish it would stop raining” is a real true one here…. days on end of rain !! )

  68. Amy the Rev*

    My fave:
    “Chugging along!”

    Reminds me of when I lived in the UK and learned that ‘you alright?’ or ‘alright?’ was a greeting akin to ‘how are you’…whereas in the US (or at least my part of the US), that phrase is pretty much only used when you are actually concerned because the person seems not-alright. Took me a few days of ‘yeah, im fine, why, do i look upset?’ before I caught on.

    1. Taylor Swift*

      I visited Australia last year and was very thrown off by that, too. I was starting to wonder if I looked sick or something.

  69. Bossy Magoo*

    I didn’t even pay attention to my usual response until this letter, but when passing in the hall and someone says “how are you?” I believe I respond with “Hiya!” and continue walking. I don’t actually answer the question, nor do I ask how they are. #ImWeird

  70. Dzhymm, BfD*

    I have been known to respond to this with “Would you like the socially-correct answer or the truthful answer?”

    1. The RO-Cat*

      Yeah, with the people used to my taste in humor (not so many, I’m afraid) sometimes I’m like “Do you want me to be honest or do you want me to say I’m fine?”

  71. Serin*

    One day I hope to work in a workplace where “I acknowledge your greeting, fellow sapient being,” would be an acceptable response. So far I haven’t found it.

    From a sociological perspective I love it that when someone asks how you’re doing, “MONDAY,” “Fine as frog hair,” “I’ll live,” “Late late oh my God I’m going to get yelled at,” and “Hey, I haven’t seen you since August” are all acceptable answers.

    1. EA in Rainy Florida*

      I have actually (very occasionally) responded with “Greetings, fellow human”. Only when it’s someone that knows me well enough to understand my sense of humor.

      One of my other favorite responses is “I’m on top of the ground, rather than under it”

  72. DrMouse*

    I’m struggling with OP’s assessment of pleasantries as “inauthentic”. As many others have pointed out, asking someone how they are is an acknowledgement and a courtesy, not a true question. I care that people feel treated with kindness, and that starts with letting them know they are seen. I’m also not sure I would alert my manager to the potential for me to be teary-eyed. I did that once about 10 years ago, and in retrospect I think a more professional approach might have been to focus on my work and periodically take 5 minutes to cry my eyes out in the privacy of a bathroom stall. But- that’s just me. Everyone is dealing with different stuff and different needs!

  73. the.kat*

    Would it help you to mentally add a qualifier to the end of their statement? So, someone at work asks, “how are you?” and you mentally make it “how are you at work?” or “how are you right now?” Then, you can answer honestly, “good, thanks” or “really busy” or “do you know where my stapler went?”

    It might feel less dishonest and (in my experience) that’s what they’re asking anyway.

    1. Fifty Foot Commute*

      This is what I was going to suggest. If you want to answer positively for whatever reason, just think of an area of your life that is going well and say “fine” with integrity. It doesn’t have to be the whole picture.

  74. memyselfandi*

    Any votes for Howdy! ? Often derided as a greeting of bumpkins, it is in some ways more useful than the longer expression. It is a contraction of “how do you do” that lacks the specificity of the longer form and serves the purpose of the social ritual of greeting others without seeming to require an answer other than another Howdy. Not that I ever use it. But maybe we all should be. Would save some syllables.

    1. Argh!*

      I wouldn’t use that outside of Texas. That would definitely feel inauthentic to me. I don’t have an accent and it’s not commonly used where I live.

    2. bryeny*

      Yes! I use howdy and y’all (very handy expressions) despite being a New Englander. (Also ciao, bon jour, adios — I enjoy adopting bits of languages not my own. Everybody needs a hobby.)

  75. LKW*

    Years ago I worked with a team of engineers – I’d cross through their bullpen and say without waiting for a response “How you guys doing today? That’s great!” Because it is really just an acknowledgement that you are both present at the same time and the exchange is a pleasantry – not a real inquiry.

    A few years later I worked with some German folks and they were like “Why do you ask ‘How are you’? Everyone says the same thing ‘I’m fine!’, do you not want to know how people really are?” and I had to explain, no, we really don’t. It’s akin to saying hello with a wee bit more care.

    1. LS*

      Actually I find it extremely rude when people do that thing you mentioned (“How you guys doing today? That’s great!”). It may be a social convention to ask, but it’s also a social convention to allow the other person to respond. Or is that just me?

      1. Argh!*

        I agree. It’s the mutual respect of the exchange that’s meaningful in my opinion, so cutting off the other person diminishes that relationship in my mind.

  76. writelhd*

    You aren’t going to get away from some people saying “how are you” and meaning “hello” to you, but when it’s your turn to initiate the same protocol with others you can choose “good morning/afternoon” instead. Perhaps looking at that like your own personal effort to subvert something that annoys you could make putting up with it the rest of the time more bearable.

  77. Dust Bunny*

    This reminds me of my northern coworkers who get their backs up when they end up in the south and think saying “ma’am” sounds sarcastic.

    This needs an adjustment of perspective. It’s a greeting, not a marriage proposal. Your level of investment in this is out of line with its significance. There are plenty of answers that are both true enough and don’t open the door to overly personal weirdness: “Busy!” is my favorite, because I am, and it says nothing about my personal life.

    1. Argh!*

      In the North, saying “Yes sir” would be sarcastic too. I have southern friends on Facebook who occasionally share facebook memes about children being brought up to say “sir” as if that’s a good thing. I explain to them that no, it’s not always a good thing!

  78. May24*

    How are you is not so bad. What drives me crazy is “What’s new?” Like I’m put on the spot to come up with an interesting answer.

    1. Argh!*

      I would just say “nothing, what’s new with you?” or “same old same old” I don’t find that one annoying.

  79. Ramona Flowers*

    I once commented on some Reddit thread saying that I find it really disconcerting when I ask someone how it’s going and they say fine and don’t ask me the same thing back – it makes me feel kind of unacknowledged and a bit paranoid that I’ve disturbed them.

    In other words: those of you who are regularly not asking due to social anxiety may be missing the fact that NOT being asked can trigger anxiety for some people.

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      I forgot the Reddit bit which was that loads of people said they hadn’t realised it seemed rude as they were focused on their own anxiety.

    2. Areer*

      I just forget to ask it back sometimes. I’m focused on getting out a “Fine” to answer you, because I know it will be rude to not answer you. And then 10 seconds later I realize I should have also said, “How are you?” back to you and at this point, it’s past the socially-acceptable amount of time to ask it. I’m working on it, but it’s such a struggle to remember the “fine” in the first place.

  80. Perfect Tommy*

    I also hate the response “Fine.”, so I usually go with some version of, “Not bad for a Wednesday!” which could mean anything. My dad used to say, “Not bad for a fat, old banker!”

    I also like, “Hanging in there!” for a not great day, or some comment on the weather like, “Gotta smile when it’s sunny!” Yep. The old cliche weather talk for the “I acknowledge you, fellow human!” interaction.

  81. Kat M*

    “How are you doing?”
    “Keeping busy!”

    Can be said in either a cheerful or a wry tone of voice, and implies that the conversation should be short. It’s my go-to response for most situations.

  82. Papyrus*

    I identify with this too, and reading the comments where people are saying it’s a “script” and people aren’t really listening/wanting an answer doesn’t really help the inauthentic argument. I guess because it’s so against my nature – I really don’t care if people acknowledge that they see me in the hallway, and asking people how they are is something I don’t do unless I actually cared. And if someone needs something from me, I so rather they get right to the point then have to get the pleasantries out of the way first.

    I know that it’s like a 5 second exchange, and you’re “supposed” to do it, but hearing the same stuff every day is maddening, and I can’t explain why it gets under my skin as much as it does, but I can’t help it. And god, please, stop talking to me about the weather (granted, I live in a place where the only options this time of year are “It’s hot today” or “It’s not so hot today).

    1. Areer*

      I’m 100% with you. I have a coworker who insists on saying “Good morning” to me every morning, and that is literally the only exchange this person and I have every day. I just want to say, “We just saw each other 16 hours ago. You know I exist. I know you exist. Why do we have to keep acknowledging each other’s existence every damn day?”

      1. Ramona Flowers*

        Because it’s really unpleasant working somewhere where nobody ever acknowledges your existence and you can end up feeling really awful?

        Honestly, don’t knock it unless you’ve actually gone without it.

        Humans have a basic need to be seen and acknowledged and have their humanity mirrored back to them. You may think you hate it, but feeling invisible is all kinds of not great.

        1. Areer*

          At my office, we have enough meetings and get-togethers that I get acknowledged just fine. And we have a chat program, so I can talk to the whole office and acknowledge people. It’s just these little encounters in shared spaces that I want to be ignored. If I’m going into the kitchen to grab a spoon, I don’t feel it necessary to address everyone I might pass along the way. If I exit the bathroom stall at the same time as someone else, we don’t need to talk while we’re washing our hands.

      2. SarahTheEntwife*

        Besides the social bonding, I appreciate just confirming that there’s another human in my space so that I don’t get startled when they walk by or ask me an actual question.

    2. Emi.*

      “It’s just a script/ritual” address the “inauthentic” problem by pointing out that it’s not a fake inquiry or a fake assertion of fine-ness. It can’t be, because it’s actually not an inquiry or assertion at all.

  83. Hrovitnir*

    Heh, I’m in the camp of “I find this social ritual really awkward but will answer ‘good thanks, how are you?’ on my deathbed.” Well, if I feel too shite to say “good”, I say “not bad”.

    Many cultures do not ask how you are in this manner (German, Austrian, Swedish and Polish are the ones I know from talking to people from those countries.) I actually find it rude when people ask how you are and don’t wait for your answer. I’d rather you just say hi than steamroll me with the whole palava minus my input. I also dislike it when you’re passing in the hallway. Just say hello and smile! Or just smile! Don’t worry, I’m never going to tell you how I ACTUALLY am if we’re not close, but I would like to answer the question and return the favour kthx.

  84. Greg M.*

    I work retail and I get asked this like 40 times a day. Oh my god do I hate it. First off almost noone ever cares it’s just one of society’s prerecorded phrases. Yet it’s considered rude if you don’t answer and don’t ask back. Sorry but I’m trying to do my job and answer your question and make through the day with a few spoons left.

    The worst though are people who complain about your answer. The people who don’t like when you say “ok” and respond with “just ok?” oh my god, stop policing my emotions. Honestly some days OK is pretty damn good, some days it’s the best I can do and my moods don’t need your stamp of approval.

    The worst part is if I’m in a bad mood I don’t want to talk about it usually, especially at work and anything negative means followup nosy questions that aren’t anyone’s business.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you feel that strongly about it, the best thing you can do is to just answer “great, how are you?” You’ll stop the annoying “just ok?” comments, you’ll be doing what we’ve collectively agreed as a society is polite, and you’ll put the whole thing to rest with minimum hassle. By making it into a bigger thing in your head, you’re actually making it more aggravating for yourself.

      1. Greg M.*

        maybe I don’t have the energy for that. Maybe when I say I’m ok that should be good enough and I just want it left at that.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If you work in customer service, it’s part of the job to be at least minimally polite so a four-word response (like “great, how are you?”) is really a normal job expectation.

          1. MuseumChick*

            This. Part of your job working retail (very glad I not longer work in it!) is the “pleasant” to each customer. And yes, that means going through the social ritual with each and every one of them. Otherwise you are not doing your job and can negatively affect the business. There was a store in a town I used to live in where the sales people always seemed very stand-offish/in a bad mood. I stopped going in there. Now if you work a large corp. this is less of a problem, but it can, possibly, affect the reference you will eventually want. I always tell people: Play the long game. Go through that annoying thing now for a pay off down the road.

          2. Fake Eleanor*

            To be fair, people who respond to “I’m OK” with “Just OK?” are also violating the expected social roles here. But yeah, when you work retail, it’s part of your job to deal with rude people more circumspectly than you would off the clock.

          3. Kerry*

            Funnily enough when I worked in customer service I’d greet customers with a cheery “hi” and 99% of the time they’d hear “how are you” and respond “good thanks” . Then we would move on with the business interaction.

        2. SarahTheEntwife*

          Do people push back if you just say “hi, how are you?” back? I often say that automatically and usually don’t even realize until a minute later that neither of us actually ever answered the supposed-question.

        3. Triangle Pose*

          I think customer service is going to be really hard on you if saying “great, how are you?” is significantly more draining than “okay.”

      2. Van Wilder*

        I’ve had to start answering “Great!” every time I get asked how are you because I was SO tired of hearing “Just ok?” Once, I got a “Only great?” >:-O

    2. Ramona Flowers*

      Why not make it part of your auto pilot routine? That’s what most retail staff do – you just make it automatic!

    3. Observer*

      Shrug. Then get out of customer service.

      Look, I agree that people who respond back with “Just OK?” are probably being rude. But, most people who ask how are you are trying to acknowledge your humanity. If you prefer to be treated as a machine, that a job that is all about human interaction is just not for you.

      1. Greg M.*

        “Then get out of customer service.” yes because jobs just fall out of the sky.

  85. Not my Circus, Not my Monkeys*

    A way to avoid this is to beat them to the punch though this could be harder for someone with social anxiety. If you see them in the hallway, just say “Good morning/afternoon!” There is no question there so it limits the typical response to an in kind good morning/afternoon. You may have a chattier peer that responds with a “How are you?”, but you can just respond “Good, I hope you are too.” Again, it acknowledges without asking a question and is usually a genuine answer. I may not like someone, but I rarely wish them ill. :)

  86. Judge Crater*

    This is a social convention. They’re very useful and mean different things in different parts of your life.

    You’re going to have different types of social relationships with people in your work life than in other parts of your life, like your friends or family. You can have a great work relationship with someone who you really have nothing in common with outside of your profession.

    In additional to “fine”, Two useful phrases are “ok” and “great.”

    “Fine” covers the widest range, from “really good” to “you really don’t want to know.”

    “Ok” is narrower, from “fair” to “just barely well enough to show up at work and do my job.”

    “Great” is the positive equivalent of “ok,” and covers, “I woke up feeling good today”, to “I just got an awesome raise and promotion!”

  87. Reader*

    It reminds me of the formal greeting “How do you do.” It’s really just a greeting and not a question.

  88. Mishsmom*

    This has been THE most helpful article I have read in this blog. And there’s some stiff competition. Thank you Alison for explaining this whole situation. Since I began working in the US I have been baffled why and how to maneuver these exchanges.

  89. Student*

    I think one of the most interesting things about this is how polarized it is. Some people really, really want the human-acknowledgement-social-ritual thing, and other people really don’t want it at all. I wonder what the underlying difference between the two groups is – is it the same as the introvert/extrovert dynamic? Is it cultural? Is it psychological? Is it status? Something else?

    I’m one of the people that don’t like it, and I can’t really put into words the “why” I don’t like it. Best I can do is: it doesn’t make me feel like “part of the tribe” to do this. It feels more like mimicry of a tribe I don’t belong to and don’t really want to be a part of. Kind of like going to Germany and saying “bitte” even when the rest of my speech is all English. It’s acknowledging that I’m an interloper and I am trying to adopt some of the dominant group’s social mores as an apology for not really knowing the local culture. That’s fine and dandy if I’m on vacation in Germany, because then it is temporary, but in the workplace every day it just reinforces that I don’t belong to a tribe anywhere.

    1. Manders*

      I think that feeling of being an outsider describes the issue perfectly. It’s a question and expected answer that presumes that everyone in the office is feeling chipper; for people who feel like they’re just barely hanging on by their fingernails for personal or professional reasons, it’s another reminder that they’re not normal.

      I don’t know many people who object to this little ritual when they’re feeling good about their lives overall. And I had no problem with an easy automatic response when I was pretty much doing all right, but started resenting it when I had bigger problems because a response of “Fine!” was often not the truth.

  90. Be the Change*

    Maybe “Shiny!” would work instead of fabulous and grateful? Bonus: it lets you know who is a fellow Firefly fan.

    For walk-by’s that are clearly walk-by’s, I like eye contact with a smile and lots of face, maybe a little wave. This is because sometimes my voice catches, like, I try to say Hello and nothing comes out of my throat so I can seem rude, but if I have clearly caught someone’s eye and smiled, then I’m not rude.

    For telling the difference between the beginning of a conversation and a ritualized greeting, start by assuming it’s just the ritual and let the other person lead from there: “Hey Mary, how are ya?” You: Shiny! What’s up with you? “Awe nothin’ much, have a great day.” vs “Well actually…”

  91. The Framing Queen*

    I used to have a director 2 levels above me who would ask “how are you?” and when I replied “good, thanks!” his response was “Just good? Not GREAT?”

    At first, it would actually put me in a bad mood. But I told myself that I would never reply “great” just to continually irritate him.

    1. Lady Jay*

      Ooo, yes. This one irritates me too. If I’m having a hard day or something, I really don’t want to stop right there in the hallway and talk about all the reasons that I’m not “great”. Just move on, please . . .

  92. LadyKelvin*

    I have this exchange every time I see one of my good friend’s (whose first language is Russian, which is what makes this so funny):
    Me: “Hey [Name]! What’s up?”
    [Name]: “Good!”
    Now imagine Boris (from Natasha and Boris) saying that in his accent and I guarantee you will smile. Because it exemplifies the point, the answer isn’t important, the interaction is.

    But if you are ever concerned that it is more than a polite greeting, here is my rule of thumb: Assume its a polite greeting, if they want more information they will ask a follow-up question.

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      I actually had to read that twice to even work out what was ‘wrong’ with it.

  93. funambulator*

    My friend John always answers “How are you” with “Better, now that I’ve seen you!” Not great for work, but it’s so charming.

  94. Noobtastic*

    In OP’s situation, for the passing-in-the-hallway or basic water-cooler/start-of-meeting chatter, I’d go with “Happy to be here!” on a good day, or “Hanging in there” (with a smile) on a more challenging day. Followed quickly by, “And you?”

    Also, do not underestimate the importance of expression and body language. If someone wants to confide, or have your confidence, raised eyebrows, widened eyes, leaning in, and other such signals will be present. If so, you can choose whether or not to pursue it in the moment, or at all. If the time is not right (you’re passing in the hallways, but actually interested), you might say, “Let’s chat later.” That comes off more affirmative than “Talk to you later,” or the like, and even more so if you follow it up with a “Call me.” or a suggested time. On the other hand, unspoken body language welcoming a more intimate chat can be easily ignored without real repercussions. People may think you’re clueless, but it’s their own fault for not using their words.

    So, in a nutshell, “Happy to be here/Hanging in there, and you?” and then either go on your way, or say “Let’s chat later. How’s 3 o’clock for you?” if you actually do want to have the conversation.

    If your day is really going badly, you might answer with, “I’m alive. You alive? Great. How about those TPS reports?” It gives the firm message that you are 1) acknowledging them, and 2) you don’t want to talk about personal stuff right now.

    Finally, I would just say that good manners are not about being “genuine,” but about following the rules set down for society. Just as Miss Manners suggests a reply of “How kind of you to take an interest” (said as coldly as possible) when someone rudely gets all up in your personal business, you can use the approved wording, without having the corresponding feelings.

  95. Critter*

    I dislike this too, and for a while (when I was younger, especially) I’m sure I was navigating it poorly. I would think, “I know you don’t really care, why are you asking?” or “HORRIBLY, actually!” There was a period of time where I would say “fine”, and then not say anything back, and ruminate forever about how I’d messed up that interaction. Now I know it’s just one of those weird social rituals. I say “fine, thank you, how are you” and keep it moving. People who I’m more friendly with, that I work with closely, might get more details. But really, I’m not being disingenuous by saying that I’m fine. I am. I may not be spectacular, but I made it work with pants on. That’s fine for me ;)

  96. GraceW*

    Not every single conversation has to expose your “authentic” self. You can feel a certain way and not have that emotion dictate your actions.

  97. Ramona Flowers*

    One further thought: if you do or don’t do this stuff it can have a cumulative effect.

    I don’t see myself as socially adept. And yet. I smile, make eye contact and say hello/how are you to everyone, from the cleaner to the CEO. When I call someone (IT, facilities, etc) I ask how they are before asking if they can help me – which in that instance is not just about acknowledging a fellow human but being non-presumptuous and grateful I guess.

    And this affects my ability to get on and get favours and get things done quickly not just because I exchange social currency with people but because I am seen to do that by other people around me. It all adds up.

  98. Fifty Foot Commute*

    I actually really admire the people in my life who answer with “grateful” (or in the case of one man, “Thankful and grateful, thankful and greatful”). I’ve never felt compelled to ask them what they’re greatful for; I just assume it’s for a lot of non-specific things: life, donuts, my cat managed to throw up on the linoleum, etc. To me it sounds like the more optimistic version of “things could be worse.”

    Then again, if you’re going for total normalcy, it probably won’t do to take communication cues from me anyhow, but take it for what it’s worth.

  99. Anne (with an "e")*

    Sometimes I say, “fair to middlin.” When I lived in Spain I used to hear, “Sigo siguiendo,” which means, “I keep on keeping on.” I don’t know if people still say that though.

    1. Argh!*

      One of my teachers in high school said “fair to middlin” and it took me most of the school year to figure out what he meant!

  100. Anita Brayke*

    I like George Carlin’s classic “not unwell, thank you! ” but I’m not sure whether that kind of answer would fly well at your workplace.

  101. Argh!*

    My advice to the Americans who are annoyed by social graces: Get over yourself! Why be annoyed by people who are being nice to you? How about getting bent out of shape by female genital mutilation in Africa, or gays being stoned to death in Asia? or the national debt? or global warming? or wildlife poaching in sanctuaries? or suicide bombings? or the opioid epidemic? or elder abuse in nursing homes?

    Your trivial annoyance at being asked “How are you” is a sign that you lack any perspective at all. Stop staring at your belly button and think of someone else for a change! How about responding “How are *you*” and then telling the other person you really mean it and offer to take them out for coffee if they’re having a bad week?

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      Here’s a suggestion: if you’re on a blog about, say, workplace life, accept that people are going to talk about that.

      1. Argh!*

        Yes, and accept that some people will find the trivial questions rather annoying. Has there been a lack of social training in school and in life in the past few decades? I can understand someone who was home-schooled not being able to handle niceties, but really unless there’s an Asperger’s diagnosis or something, this seems like something that shouldn’t be a problem.

        1. Say what, now?*

          It’s possible that this person is depressed. They mention that saying “fine” when that’s not the case feels painful to them. That’s not a typical reaction. Please, be a little kinder to the LW. You don’t know what they are going through.

          Sidenote, being annoyed is just a part of the human condition. It doesn’t trivialize anyone else’s pain. It doesn’t erase atrocities being committed across the globe. It’s just a feeling that comes, un-beckoned and un-chosen. If we could choose how we felt the “How are you?” greeting wouldn’t ever be an issue, it probably wouldn’t be a question asked at all.

          1. Argh!*

            Right, and being self-involved is a sign of depression. It’s also a sign of being self-involved!

            1. Say what, now?*

              My point is that we shouldn’t assume that they are just self-involved. They may be truly hurting. Lets just treat them with kindness. It certainly doesn’t hurt anyone if we do.

  102. Marissa*

    Ha! I work in fundraising and will never forget the time I suggested a principal ask “How are you?” while stressing the importance of building rapport before making the ask in a cold call. She told me she didn’t want to do that, because it was inauthentic, because she didn’t really care how they were. Did NOT have a response handy for that one!

    On the flip side of that, I LOVE the stock reply another client gives when folks ask how he’s doing – it’s always “better than I deserve, better than I deserve.”

  103. Oscar Madisoy*

    I have Asperger’s and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-40s before I realized “how are you” is just an expression, not an indication of actual concern about your welfare.

    I remember when I was sent to a new department at my current employer and I was introduced to my boss, he said “How are you?” Not yet knowing it was just an expression, I responded, “I have diabetes.” (Which was, and is, true.)

    1. Argh!*

      I didn’t see this post until after I mentioned Asperger’s above. I can totally understand someone with Asperger’s not getting it, but not the rest.

  104. Pixalottle*

    From the point of view of someone who also struggles with the hi, how are you:
    I am a bit hopeless with these interactions, I misread the intention and I sometimes forget to reciprocate. I’ve been practicing, and it’s getting better; I tend to use either ‘surviving, you?’ Or ‘good thanks, you?’. Just have a few phrases and practice when to use them.
    As I know that I can come across a bit brusque in these interactions, I also make sure to compensate in other interactions, and I think that’s saved me from being perceived as grumpy!
    So I’d definitely practice these acknowledgements but don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while to really get it. I’m still not completely there yet.

  105. bryeny*

    I don’t think authenticity is necessarily required when someone at work asks how you are in passing. I used to work with a guy who answered how-are-yous honestly only if he was having a meh day. On a good day he’d clutch his head and say “Don’t get me started” or “The zombies are eating my braaaaains!” On a bad day he’d smile a crooked smile and say “Never better, B., never better.” It was kinda great.

  106. Say what, now?*

    My dad always said “oh just about as mean and ugly as I can get away with.” People were always taken aback and then smiled because he was that guy who was always singing to himself, bringing in doughnuts, and remembered all of your kids names. We lived overseas all of my childhood and the Germans and Hungarians seemed to really like it. I felt bad for the Eastern Europeans working in the office because in those countries you don’t ask “how are you?” unless you know that person and truly want to know.

  107. Linyarri*

    I understand how a person who grew up in a place where the “How are you” ritual is not practiced can view this as insincere. I think it is meant as a very polite greeting designed to get a vague impression of how a person wants to be treated without being invasive or verbose.

    I would suggest using “Fine, How are you?” as your baseline. Swap out “Fine” with another word or phrase if your day is particularly good or bad and you don’t mind talking about it. Use sarcasm or a joke if you don’t mind some light hearted banter.

    This is how I interpret the answers:
    –Fine: Treat normally.
    –Below normal: Show sympathy, treat the person a little kinder.
    –Sarcasm/joke: May be open to bantering.
    –Excessive answer (really good, really bad or really long): they may have something they need to talk about.
    –They don’t ask How I am: They really, really don’t want to talk.

    There are a lot of nuances to this, but as near as I can figure this is the pattern that I grew up with. It is so deeply ingrained that it is hard to break out. By the way, I am an extreme introvert and find this very useful, with a few words/seconds I can politely convey that I don’t want to talk. (“How are you?”, “Fine, Thank you”. Result: no one bothers me until 9am when my social skills kick in)

  108. Seven of Eight*

    oh man, I haven’t been playing the “how are you?” game either. I didn’t realize that would seem rude. Damn. Well, hopefully it won’t be weird if I start playing.

  109. Mauri*

    I am sympathetic: I hate the fact that in English you say stuff like “Hello! How are you!?” when you just mean good morning.

  110. Noah*

    “That is literally all this interaction requires.”

    Eh, I’ve had more than one employer that says “Good” is the only appropriate answer to this question in a profssional context.

  111. Bethlam*

    Late to comment, but I’ve been out of town and am catching up, and wanted to add my comment even if nobody sees it. I was out of town because my mom died unexpectedly 3 weeks ago, and I’m really struggling. And part of that struggle aligns with this topic.

    I’m usually a very outgoing, personable, cheerful person, who can easily handle the, “How are you” morning ritual with a smiling, positive response. But, right now, any positive answer feels like a deception, yet I don’t want to burden my co-workers, vendors, or other visitors with a true response, which is that I’m not really fine at the moment.

    But all of the responses to this letter have given me so many alternatives to use so that I don’t have to explain how awful I’m feeling, but also not answer with something that feels untruthful. So thanks everyone for your contributions, some of which I’ve already used and found to perfectly gloss over this uncomfortable time. It will get better, but I really needed something to bridge the gap.

  112. hope springs*

    I’m allergic to cliches and moldy inauthentic social customs like “how are you” so I avoid purveyors as best I can. Worst are those who don’t give up or are offended when you try to evade such silliness.

    There is nothing wrong with a simple “hey”, or a nod to acknowledge another’s existence, and there’s no pressure to respond in the expected boring automatic insincere antiquated way.

Comments are closed.