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I have been asked one simple question many times by Americans: "How are you?". I know this does not mean that the person I am talking to wants to know how I feel, but sometimes I see that they repeat the question to me, so I answer that "I am fine", and I do not know what I should answer other than "fine" to people who I do know.

I know, for example, that in Hebrew "How are you?" in most cases means "Hello". In Russian if you ask "How are you?" you definitely want to know it.

What do you mean when you ask this question? What answer do you want to hear?

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I'm attempting to remove this phrase from my own day-to-day speech, as I find it disingenuous to use it as "hello"; I hate answering this, because I either feel like a liar ("oh, I'm fine") or like I don't know English very good ("<response not addressing how I am>") If you're not ready for someone's life story, don't ask for it. –  Thanatos Apr 26 at 2:43
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I feel that this question might be a better fit for the English Language Learners StackExchange. –  Doc Apr 26 at 5:14

9 Answers 9

Context is key. That being said, in most cases, in American English at least, "How are you?" just means "Hello." Not even a formal "fine" response is required. It would not be uncommon to hear two Americans have this conversation:

Joe, how are you?

Nate, how are you doing?

or

Joe how are you?

Nate, good to see you.

If you want to respond to "how are you" by telling about your condition, you can, but it needs to be a very short response.

Joe, how are you?

Not bad, how about you?

Oh, you know. Sick of all this snow.

or

Joe, how are you?

Doin' great. I closed the Smith deal.

No kidding?

The person asking "How are you?" is not trying to probe the depths of your health or your psyche; he or she is just making polite conversation. If they really want to know something, they will say something along the lines of:

I haven't seen you in ages. What have you been up to?

or

I heard about your husband. How are you holding up?

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Agreed that it often just means Hello, and the proper response expected is a perfunctory "Fine" or "All right". As others have said, if your doctor asks, he wants a detailed accounting of how you are. Everyone else is normally satisfied with some sort of "fine". –  Phil Perry Apr 25 at 17:29
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It is uncommon to hear the question not answered, typically there is at least some quick answer such as "fine", "good", or "alright", followed by asking the same or a similar question back. –  Darthfett Apr 25 at 22:09
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@Darthfett In my experience (Am.E) it isn't uncommon to not answer the question, but to reply in kind as chapka showed in his first answer. Even just "Hey Joe, how are you doing?" "Hey Bob" and nothing else when passing each other in the hall would be normal. –  Doc Apr 26 at 5:17

It depends on who asks the question. In casual conversation, people expect the response: "Fine, how are you?"

If a doctor asks you the question, he expects the truth.

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The answer to this question would vary in different situations. In most cases you should reply with neutral:

"Fine. What about you?"

"Great! How are you?"

Even if you had a really bad day, when you have a business meeting, you wouldn't answer something like this to the question you mentioned:

"Oh, I had a really bad day..."

"Bad, what about you?"

On the other hand, if you are talking to your close friend, this is acceptable.

And, as @Gary's Student mentioned, sometimes this question is not just for the sake of politeness, but it is a direct information request (a visit to a doctor).

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It is just a conventional way to exchange the first introductory words when you meet someone. The idea is to create a positive contact with the other person showing interest in his respect. But it is sort of fixed expression which has lost its literal meaning and has evolved into a sort of stereotype. So, don't worry about the meaning and just say: I am fine. Thank you, and you?

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I prefer to hear "I'm well" over "I'm fine" but Americans have the habit of using the question as a greeting, and though they will often walk on by before you can answer, it is not thought of as rude behavior

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The other answers are great, but I'd like to add that in Transactional Analysis the "how are you?" exchange is classified as a Ritual. "How are you?" is a way of giving and getting a basic attention and recognition, a way which is highly ritualised e.g. happens almost automatically and in a predefined fashion.

Other examples of such rituals would be kissing a spouse goodbye, asking a child returning from school what his marks are, asking an ill person whether she feels okay or asking a coworker about the job he was working on. Even though these rituals exchange some practical information the important thing in them is the token of attention.

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You should answer with your state of being. For example: "How are you?" "I am (fine/sad/angry)."

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As discussed in the other answers, "How are you?" isn't normally a literal enquiry. –  David Richerby Apr 25 at 14:52

I can certainly understand why it is confusing. No, we usually don't care how you are, it's just a greeting. If a stranger is addressing you, just say "fine" or "good". If you want to be more friendly, say "Fine, how are you?". Only friends really want to know how you are, and if asked by a friend you can actually say how you are, good or bad and why. Also there is a special way of asking this question with emphasis on the "are" that means the asker thinks something is wrong and is concerned. Thus "How are you?" from a friend means they are worried about you.

Actually, since you mention Russian, it seems to me it is very similar to:

Как дела? Хорошо. А у тебя?

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Are communication channels open here? A lack of reponse indicates that they are not.

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I see I got a response. –  Wayfaring Stranger Apr 25 at 14:06
    
This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. –  Mari-Lou A Apr 25 at 15:34
    
Sure it does. Sometimes "How are you?" is used just to see if another person is responsive. Or would you claim otherwise? I use it that way sometimes myself. I doubt I'm alone in that. –  Wayfaring Stranger Apr 25 at 15:52
    
The OP is asking for the "meaning" and an appropriate response to the question, "How are you"? This is basically about small talk, some cultures don't have this concept. –  Mari-Lou A Apr 25 at 16:08
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Or some people like me just can't integrate this small-talk concept. –  Léon Pelletier Apr 25 at 23:18

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