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We're told in our English classes (learning English as a foreign language) that the only possible answer to

  • How do you do?

is to repeat the question:

  • How do you do?

(While it's perfectly OK to answer other similar questions

  • How are you? / How are you doing?
  • Fine, thanks / etc

)

That said, then I talk to English speakers with Skype or in chats, I tried to ask the question, but the answer was never "how do you do?". It was rather "fine. you?" or something.

What is right and what is a myth?

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4  
Nobody in America uses "How do you do?" In My Fair Lady, Liza is taught the most exaggerated version of this phrase! –  ash Mar 15 '11 at 0:58
    
@ash it's also used in "Boy Named Sue" for the rhyming effect: "And I said: 'My name is Sue, how do you do?'" –  tedder42 Jul 17 at 18:21
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I'm not a native English speaker but I'm amazed that a simple greeting can motive such interesting discussion! –  rmartinsjr Jul 31 at 14:20

10 Answers 10

up vote 30 down vote accepted

As Cerberus wrote about 'U' English, replying to "How do you do" with "How do you do" used to be the case among some classes in England (at least), but it seems to be (sadly) nearly extinct. Kate Fox writes in the first chapter of Watching the English (which is about talking about the weather):

We used to have another option, at least for some social situations, but the ‘How do you do?’ greeting (to which the apparently ludicrous correct response is to repeat the question back ‘How do you do?’) is now regarded by many as somewhat archaic, and is no longer the universal standard greeting. The ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ exchange must, however, be understood in the same light, and not taken literally: ‘How do you do?’ is not a real question about health or well-being, and ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ is not a real question about the weather.

So in this usage, "How do you do?" wasn't an actual question about the person: it was just a meaningless greeting, and for instance what one might say when introduced to someone (in lieu of "Pleased to meet you"), presumably while tipping one's hat. In reply, the other person, also wishing to make the same meaningless greeting, would say "How do you do". Note that "How do you do" in this usage was even spoken as a statement, not as a question (i.e., without a rising tone at the end).

These days "How do you do?" is more likely to be interpreted as an actual question. Interestingly, as n0nChun observes, one does sometimes hear a similar exchange these days, with "What's up" getting the reply "What's up".

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4  
This is somewhat similar to how the correct English response to "Sorry" (when someone bumps into you, say) is "Sorry". :-) –  ShreevatsaR Mar 14 '11 at 20:23
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@ShreevatsaR Last week ad Edinburgh airport, someone ran into me, I said "Sorry" and he said "My fault" as an excuse. –  Uwe Keim Mar 14 '11 at 20:40
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You could also say it this way: "how do you do" back has been replaced with an equally meaningless reply. It is just an exterior change of convention; etiquette demands that you give only one answer when asked about your well-being in somewhat formal situations: you are doing well, thank you. At "not so great", your interlocutor would be forced to ask "oh dear, why not?", and you'd be forced to talk about your problems, which was not at all what you had in mind on this visit to your fiancée's grandmother. Asking about a good friend's health is and has always been something else entirely. –  Cerberus Mar 14 '11 at 23:02
    
Kate Fox is bang on the money as usual! –  gpr Mar 14 '11 at 23:04
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@valya: Kate Fox has an entire chapter on how to answer "Nice day, isn't it?", but the main point is that you should agree (mumbling "mmm yes, isn't it?" is fine), whatever you think about the weather. It's better to remain silent and be slightly rude (it's rude but okay not to talk to strangers), than to disagree and say "no the weather is rather unpleasant" which is more rude. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Mar 15 '11 at 15:04

The reason for the varied responses is that the question you ask is not only about the English language, but it also touches on etiquette, which is more idiomatic.

The short answer is: yes, the answer to "How do you do?" is "How do you do?" It is also acceptable to reply "I'm fine, and you?" and similar variations.

However -- and this is important to the etiquette side of things and not so much the language side -- "how do you do?" is actually not a question! It is a greeting, similar to "good morning" and, hence, an appropriate reply is also "good morning to you!"

Etiquette allows simple replies such as "I'm fine, how are you?" to appease the literalists who might feel off-put by a non-reply to what they mis-interpret as having asked you a question. However, good manners also prevents one from discussing their personal troubles with every acquaintance or stranger on the street who greets them with "good morning!" or "how do you do?" Hence, any reply in the form of an answer is always "I'm fine" (followed by "and you?", as a courtesy), and never "terrible! My stomach hurts and I have a splitting headache!"

Of course, if you are talking with a friend who truly inquires about your wellbeing, and you feel like sharing with them, by all means, do so. My answer is not meant to prevent that, only to allow you the dignity of a polite answer for passers-by that does not require you to spill your guts.

Good luck!

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Many of my non-native-English-speaking friends have also said they were taught the same as you, but with the same principle applying to all similar greetings -- "How's it going?", "How are you?", et al.

I find that bizarre. As an American English speaker, I am always taken by surprise if someone answers my "how do you do?" with another "how do you do?". While I don't always care much about their response, I do feel that I am actually asking a question to open up conversation via responses like, "Actually I just came down with a cold," or, "Great! My school application was accepted today!".

I agree with you, I expect a real response, even if it's, "Fine, you?" 90% of the time.

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There is a difference noted in proper/formal manners wherein you respond with "How do you do?" I have no idea how I learned that but something taught me that this was the Proper way to greet someone. If I remember correctly, they even made a few jokes about it in My Fair Lady. –  MrHen Mar 14 '11 at 19:07
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Really? What part of the United States are you from? I have never heard another American say "How do you do?" nor would I expect a stranger to actually answer the question with anything more than "Fine, you?" –  HaL Mar 14 '11 at 19:08
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@HaL: I grew up in the midwest, went to university in Boston, and lived in Seattle for 6 years. I have probably never greeted with literally, "How do you do?" but I was lumping all these similar greetings into one. I don't think I greet strangers this way. Like I said, for me, it's not about the specific answer as much as it's opening up the conversation. –  tenfour Mar 14 '11 at 19:35
    
See my answer, separately. There are 2 issues here: English language and etiquette. My reference for the etiquette part is Miss Manners, but I'm pretty sure that Post and others agree on this issue. –  Olie Mar 14 '11 at 21:25
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I'd add that "howdy" is a contraction of "how do you do", which IS said in parts of the Midwest where I grew up. And "howdy" is definitely never understood as a question. –  tenfour Mar 15 '11 at 15:11

I believe this rule only applies to U English nowadays. It was probably more widespread in the past. As far as I know, it is still de rigueur in certain circles; that is, when someone asks how do you do, you say it back; but it will now rarely be asked any more, and so the occasion for saying it back won't arise either. Perhaps this shibboleth does not extend to America; I wonder how U and non-U language work there, as I am sure they must exist in some form in nearly every culture.

I have spoken with some foreigners here who were specifically taught U Dutch and kept wondering why most people used different words. I think language learners should at least be explained the difference before being taught one variant or the other, both of which can be equally useful—that is, if their teacher is good.

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As a native UK English speaker, I'd be very surprised to hear "How do you do?" used in a modern conversation in London. It's somewhat archaic. However "How do you do?" would be an appropriate response - the phrase should be interpreted more like "hello" than an actual question.

"How are you doing?" is now much more common, and would typically be answered with a neutral response and a similar question back - e.g. "I'm fine thanks, and how are you?". I would consider it mildly impolite not to answer the question at all, but you can answer any way you like - it's meant to be taken as a genuine question.

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While questions of the type you list there are frequently either partially or fully rhetorical (in that the asker doesn't actually care how you are, but rather is simply following the social convention to ask), I've never heard of any sort of rule or custom of only answering the question with another question.

Certainly, it's possible to simply respond with the question you were asked, especially if you're passing someone rather than actually beginning a conversation. But I would suggest that a more standard response would be of the sort you got on chat. A one word answer followed by asking about you as well.

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There is no rule that says the correct answer to "how do you do?" is to reply back the same question.

In my experience, most people would reply back with "I am fine" without to give any further detail, even in the case they are not actually feeling well.
I have also heard people who, receiving back "I am fine; and you?" as answer, didn't answer back.

Most people would not take attention to the reply given, but replying to a question with another question could be interpreted differently from the person who first asked the question.

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Agree with most of the guys, yet I've heard What's up! always replied with a What's Up!, more like a Hello! I think.

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Please keep "I agree", "you're right" and other "me, too" type responses to comments, rather than posting them as answers. Thanks! –  Olie Mar 16 '11 at 3:58
    
And why? It's not that my answer doesn't add value to the discussion. –  n0nChun Mar 16 '11 at 4:01
    
The comments are for discussion. Answers are supposed to be answers. –  MrHen Mar 18 '11 at 21:22

Another modern UK version is "alright?", "alright". The reply can be a statement or the same ritual question repeated back, which is rather neat.

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Or the French "ça va?", "ça va". –  ShreevatsaR Mar 15 '11 at 7:21
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@ShreevastaR, which in full renderers as: "ça va?", "ça va, ça va?", "ça va." :) –  Benjol Mar 15 '11 at 9:17
    
Although "Are you alright?"/"You alright?"/"alright?" rarely requires any sort of reply. This was rather confusing during my first year in the UK, when you stopped to answer the question while the other person already passed by. –  Jules Mar 15 '11 at 10:10
    
I find the BE/AE difference here interesting. To my understanding, "Alright"(BE) and "Whats up"/"Wassup"(AE) have the meaning of a general greeting like "Hello". "What's up?"(BE) and "Alright?"(AE) have the same meaning too, but are more likely to be understood as an enquiry, and when said to a stranger might elicit a response such as, "Nothing, why?" –  Matt Jan 5 '12 at 10:25

Myth. In England, "How do you do?" although replaced mainly with the likes of "Alright?" and "What's up?" is just about surviving in some parts under the guise of "'ow do?". Like most greetings, can be:

  • just repeated back.
  • answered with any other greeting (even "How do you do?", why not!).
  • answered literally.
  • responded to visually (nod/smile/salute).
  • safely ignored if the asker doesn't seem to be waiting around for a reply, but consider getting your greeting in first the next time. ;-)
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