“I’m fine”

In the NYT on the 20th, a piece ,”The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash” by Aline Simone, on a difference between Russian and American conversational patterns, having to do with the question “How are you?” and the answers it gets.

From the piece:

“When an American asks me this question, it’s like a wall of ice crashing down between us.”

The question my Moscow-born friend Galina was referring to had nothing to do with Putin, or Pussy Riot, or the culinary ethics of adding ketchup to your pirogi. And yet, it is the back across which Russian-American relations are broken.

The question in question is, “How are you?”

The answer Americans give, of course is, “Fine.” But when Russians hear this they think one of two things: (1) you’ve been granted a heavenly reprieve from the wearisome grind that all but defines the human condition and as a result are experiencing a rare and sublime moment of fineness or (2) you are lying.

Ask a Russian, “How are you?” and you will hear, for better or worse, the truth. [elaboration on this]

…  The thing most Russians don’t realize is that, in English, “How are you?” isn’t a question at all, but a form of “hi,” like the Russian “privyet!” The Americans weren’t responsible for its transformation; that honor goes to the British. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase’s precursor, “How do you do?” as a common phrase “often used as a mere greeting or salutation.” The anodyne exchange dates at least as far back as 1604, to Shakespeare’s Othello

Eventually, Simone gets it right: the question How are you? and the answer Fine are conventional, idiomatic expressions in social exchanges in English. Taking them literally is a cross-cultural error.

It’s astonishing how much heat is generated by such expressions. The internet is full of venom about two relatively recent ones in the U.S.:

No problem ‘You’re welcome; of course’ [possibly related to Spanish De nada (literally) ‘It’s nothing’]

I’m good ‘No thank you’

People complain bitterly that others don’t use the older expressions. Well, language changes, and idioms are not fully compositional.


3 Responses to ““I’m fine””

  1. Joseph F Foster Says:

    Bore da, a Arnold a Phob,
    Good morning, Arnold and everybody,

    Re your last ‘no problem’ example and comment, indeed language does change. I remember the involuntary visitation of the shock when I first heard some years ago a young Welshman reply to being thanked, not with the usual Croeso! ‘Welcome’ but with

    Dim problem.
    No problem.

    And I thought

    “Nage! Ddim yn Gymraeg!”
    No! Not in Welsh!”

  2. More “How are you?” | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] up on my posting on “How are you?” (and the answer “(I’m) fine”): mail to the NYT. A […]

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