Sometimes it’s the little things that throw you. How are you? is a seemingly simple question that can cause a lot of uncertainty. What can you reply? Let’s look at two different situations: when you’re asked by someone you know and when you’re asked by someone you don’t know.


When you’re asked by someone you know

Especially with a newish business partner or someone you’re only in touch with sporadically it can be difficult to judge how honest to be or how much detail to go into.

Unfortunately, the question comes at the very beginning of an interaction and if it catches you unawares, you can feel that the whole conversation has got off to a bad start.  Let’s have a look at some ways of avoiding that.

Short and simple

You can’t really go wrong if you give a brief answer and then return the question:

Good, thanks. And you?
Fine, how about you?
(In this case, you leave it up to the other person to either answer just as briefly or to add a little small talk.)

Adding a little more

While nobody expects (or wants) to hear a 10-minute monologue on everything that’s happened to you recently, depending on the relationship and situation it’s often good to go a little further. Try giving a brief answer with some extra info which the other person can pick up on if they wish.

–  How are you?
–  Great! I’m really looking forward to my holiday next week.
(This gives the other person the chance to ask where you are going, if they want. If nothing is forthcoming, you can simply add: And how are you?)

–  How are you?
–  Good, thanks. How about you?
–  Not bad. We’re in the final stages of the XY project.
(The other person can then ask for more details of the project, if they want)

–  How’s it going?
–  Well, thanks. By the way, I saw [name of mutual contact] last week and we talked about that conference in Paris.
–  Oh, that was a great conference. What’s [name of mutual contact] doing nowadays?

–  How are you doing?
–  Ok, thanks. And you? How’s your new house coming along?

–  How are things?
–  Could be better. We’ve just lost a big order.
(Here the other person has the choice of just sympathising (Oh no, that’s a pity) or asking for details (Oh no, what happened?)


When you’re asked by someone you don’t know

This is the situation which people seem to find the most perplexing. You go into a shop and at the till the assistant says: “How are you?” Your first thought may be: “Huh? Why’s she asking?” You’ve never seen this person before and have absolutely no idea why she’s interested in you. She’s not.  It’s just a standard greeting, an addition or alternative to hi, hello or good morning. It’s up to you whether you answer the question. If you do, keep it very brief.

–  Hi. How are you?
–  Hi.
–  That’s £10.50, please.

–  How are you?
–  Fine. And you?
–  Fine. That’s £10.50, please.

As you can see whether you answer the question or not, has no impact on the rest of the interaction.


If you’d like to add a little variety …

Replies to “How are you?” (roughly ranked from very positive to negative):

Never better!
Really well!
Good, thanks.
Fine, thanks.
Not bad, thanks.
I’m ok, thanks.
Could be better.
Not so good at the moment.



Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more