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I work in an office environment as a software developer in Massachusetts, USA and every so often have some colleague ask me a question like "what's cooking? anything good?"

When they say that they are usually standing next to my desk, waiting for me to reply.

These individuals are not managers or anyone who would be looking for a status update, and typically the sort of work stuff I do is not really all that exciting to talk about (unless maybe someone is fascinated by the nuances of some software work, but I do not think that is what these people really want to know).

Besides, I come from a northern European culture where small talk has not been really common (I'm from Finland), I typically do not really have much going on that I think would be interesting to those who ask this question. So as a result I give them an answer like "nothing, really". But that sounds a bit awkward (or perhaps even a tad pessimistic sounding because I sometimes wonder if they expect my life to be exciting). So I was wondering how do native English speakers answer this kind of question?

(Side note: I do not think this is similar to the other commonly asked-about question "How are you ..." as that one can just be answered with a simple "fine, how about yourself" etc.)

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    Perhaps if you are a fairly quiet chap, who doesn't say much, they are just being friendly and trying to open up a conversation with you. You don't say where you are. Are you in the UK? – WS2 Jan 3 '15 at 22:13
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    Thanks, WS2, I am in USA, I updated the question. You are right about them probably wanting to open up a conversation. Although I am still interested of how native English speakers respond to these questions when they feel that their private life or work may not have anything that would really interest the person asking the question. Or maybe "nothing much, how about you" would be about as appropriate as it gets? – x457812 Jan 3 '15 at 22:22
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    It seems you are agreed it is only a social greeting, so how you respond will depend on whether you want to be sociable or not. – WS2 Jan 3 '15 at 23:05
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    Generally the intent is to give you an opportunity to mention something beyond the obligatory response of "Fine, thank you" that you'd give to "How are you doing?" You can treat it as an invitation to engage in further discussion, but if you are not so inclined it's perfectly fine to simply reply "Not much." But consider discussing a little of your work if appropriate, since it will help "open up" further communication between you and your coworkers. – Hot Licks Jan 4 '15 at 0:12
  • You don't have to take the question literally and actually answer it, you can just treat it as a synonym for "hello" and reply with (for example) "hey... what's up?" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phatic_expression "Nothing much, how about you?" is also fine, if a bit boring. – A E Jan 4 '15 at 16:21
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"What's cooking" means "what's going on?" or perhaps more specifically "what are you working on?"

According to this it dates from the 1940s. The meaning comes from asking someone what is cooking on the stove, and consequently what should I expect in the near future, however, it has generalized in common usage to a less specific meaning of "what's going on" without necessarily an expectation of a future result.

As to what to answer; mostly this is a rhetorical phrase much as "how are you" and it isn't necessarily a specific solicitation for information, it tends to be used as a general social greeting. If someone was looking for something more specific they would probably ask a more specific question such as "what are you working on", or "what new projects have you got going on."

Even though it is used for you in the context of work, it really shouldn't be considered to apply only to that. It is a social question, so probably includes you social and personal life too, unless it is more specific.

So on its own "nothing much" or something similar is perfectly acceptable. It is generally more of a conversation starter.

  • I generally agree with this answer, but there are a few additional considerations specifically related to a software-development context/workplace. I've included them in my answer below. – MandisaW Jan 4 '15 at 3:11
  • As said, it's often a solicitation to start a conversation - and often as not the asker is hoping that you'll turn the question around because they have something going on. So a "Not much, you?" is not only acceptable, but could even be the desired response (allowing them to tell you something going on for them). – Doc Jan 5 '15 at 15:44
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Hmm... This seems to be a common question, and any advice in this piece will probably be 10x better than anything I can say.

If a business colleague attempts to make small talk, do not panic. They probably are not drunk, they are probably not mentally ill, and they probably do not want to sell you something (other than some girl scout cookies), but they probably are American.

If you do not want to engage in small talk with the person, just say any of the following.

  1. Not much
  2. Nothing much
  3. Nothing
  4. Oh, {pause 1/2 second} nothing
    Don't pause longer than a half second, because the longer you pause the more likely you will get a response. Unless you pause for more than 20 seconds, as that would probably discourage further small talk
  5. I don't know (35-second video)
  6. Um, I was just thinking about how much the Boston Bruins suck. (I am being sarcastic here, and it is not intended as sincere response. This answer will not make you many friends, and you might get anything from an FU to a hot coffee in your face).

To further indicate that you do not wish to talk,
do
a) look down or away from the person asking you the question;
b) shake your head side-to-side ('no') as you respond;
do not
a) add a tag question, 'and you?' or 'how about you?' because you greatly increase the likelihood of getting a response, and then you are back to square one;
b) smile, as that is an invitation to talk more; but you need not scowl or frown, either; in addition, a smile can be misinterpreted by someone who is interested in you sexually or romantically (a clue to this is if they say the variant phrase 'What's cooking, good looking?').

If you are interested in engaging in small talk, you can answer

"bacon", and wait for a response.

{Note: this is an actual response that Americans sometimes give. It is a literal response to the question 'What's cooking?. As such, it can show a sense of humor.}

If that doesn't work,

An article from the Helsinki Times says you can mention 'weather,
children,
spouses,
sports or
politically neutral current events.'

Caution: referring to someone's skin color at an American workplace can get you in big trouble (suspension to termination), so don't do that. Additionally, most Americans I know would not talk about family members unless they know the person much better.

Bragging about Tuukka Rask is absolutely acceptable. Or if you feel uncomfortable bragging, you could mention his statistics, or something about his hometown, or the design on his helmet, and work oneself up to the latest great save he made. If the person you are talking to likes hockey, don't forget to mention Teemu Selänne or last year's Winter Olympics.

I would not talk about sauna as that could make the wrong impression, although mentioning that a Russian guy died a couple years ago trying to outlast a Finn in a sauna would probably get a response.

You could mention any of the following Finnish pastimes and probably get a response:

Air Guitar championships
World Cell Phone Throwing Championships
Swamp Soccer
Mosquito Swatting Championships
Reindeer Tipping Championships (okay, I made that one up)

This video may or may not help.

If you find that you don't mind conversing with the person, remember that in America:
a) interrupting someone to ask a question is perfectly fine.
b) prefacing your statements with
'Let me tell you about...'
'I want to ask you something...'
'I want to tell you...'
'I want you to know that...' is fine and normal. However, Americans don't want you to say anything that is actually important or true, especially about the person you are talking with.
c) staring intensely at us the whole time we are talking might make us feel uneasy, even when you think it is a sign of respect. So look away every once in awhile.
d) you do not have to have perfect grammar.
e) there's always room for another day.

If you actually want to flirt, you can answer:

'me'

{Again, a more or less literal response to the question; I am mainly pointing it out because it is an actual response to the question by a native speaker.}

Above all, feel free to be yourself, if it applies. Just remember that not all Americans are jabber monkeys.

Last, a professor from the great state of Massachusetts (in which I lived three years) finds cultural exchange with his Finnish colleagues both fascinating and frustrating.

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    Hilarious for an American, or someone used to how we roll, but this is probably incredibly confusing for someone who legitimately doesn't know what's normal/acceptable in an American work environment. (And of course, workplaces differ...) – MandisaW Jan 4 '15 at 5:10
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    I do not recommend responding to "What's cooking" by referring to your family members as this could lead to enquiries by the authorities and your luncheon being confiscated as evidence. – user52889 Jan 4 '15 at 14:28
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    My goodness. That chapter in the last link says some incredible things about Finns and pauses. From the Finnish perspective, these long (10+ second) pauses in the middle of a conversation are described as "delightful" relaxing interludes that give the conversation its requisite gravity. It's acknowledged that Americans might find this bizarre, but they don't seem to realize that this is, for most Americans, actually excruciating. I mean, we'd be in full fight-or-flight and end up screaming or jumping out a window or gnawing our own arm off to escape. – Kundor Jan 5 '15 at 17:33
  • I believe the best answer to "what's up" or "what's cooking" in the workplace is to talk about what you are working on. For instance, "I'm working on the Smithers account. They want a different contract." That's the most common ground, useful as some people don't like to discuss their personal lives. – tedder42 Jan 8 '15 at 19:31
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I agree with Fraser Orr's answer above, "What's cooking?", asked in the context of work or activity is generally a social question, meant as an invitation for pleasant, semi-formal conversation, if you are so inclined.

In some workplaces, it is acceptable to have such conversations with co-workers at your (or their) desks, so long as it is not too loud/distracting, or takes too much time or attention away from work (for you, for them, or for others working nearby).

I would add that in the particular context of software development, and some other project-oriented fields, depending on the workplace, workers are sometimes encouraged to discuss their projects with one another, in hopes of improving the project, solving issues through cooperation, and so-on. This is usually framed as cooperation or teamwork used towards the common goal of the project's success.

So in that context, a question like "what's cooking?" may be a specific overture to a work-related conversation among peers. They are not looking for specifics or a status report like your boss/supervisor might, nor is it appropriate to frame issues in the form of a complaint about the work. However, if you encounter an issue that you might like assistance, advice, or educated input from this person about, then it is appropriate to briefly describe the issue or ask a question.

*Note that some companies or some projects may have security or non-disclosure issues that specify which people you can or can't discuss the projects with. Also, some companies actually encourage a competitive relationship among employees. Only you could determine what's appropriate if your workplace falls into either of these categories.

7

Just as with a question like "How are you doing?", a bland non-answer such as "Not much, how about yourself?" or a simple statement like "Oh, you know, just getting some work done" is perfectly acceptable in most situations.

It is, as you've surmised, just another form of empty small talk, and is essentially just an alternate way of saying "What's going on in your life? Anything interesting?" to which an answer that amounts to 'Nothing of interest to you', stated more politely, is perfectly acceptable.

Should you actually want to start a conversation about your current activity, you're more than welcome to give a simple answer that invites the other person into that further conversation. I wouldn't launch into all the messy details without giving them the chance to politely bow out though.

2

It's fine to say, "Nothing much" or the like, but then turn it around. "How 'bout you?" They probably want to chat for a bit and probably have something they are dying to talk about but don't want to blurt it out right away.

0

Despite being a native English speaker, I also find such questions difficult to respond to, unless I am, in fact, cooking a meal. In theory they are asking:

What are you doing?

Outside of a workplace context this is typically a way for someone to invite themselves into an activity or a social gathering. You will need to be clear in your response whether they would be welcome to join in, as if you do not specify they may assume that they are.

In the workplace, the answer is probably fairly obvious: you're working, and depending on your job it may be pretty clear what you're working on. This puts you at a disadvantage in replying. The speaker is asking a very generic question rather than taking the time to ask something meaningful, and not communicating anything about what would be a helpful response. In many cases I've noticed people ask such questions expecting a response they don't have to acknowledge, process or act on in any way, and simply use it where "Excuse me" or "Can I interrupt you?" would be more appropriate. Unlike "Excuse me", however, in this case they probably want to make you (or themselves) feel like you're choosing to engage in small talk with them when they make their request rather than that they are in fact coming to you for help when you are doing something else. Personally, I prefer not to encourage such behaviour.

You could simply give a brief overview of what you're doing, but that might invite further conversation. If you're concerned by this and suspect they are loitering, consider giving them something useful to do instead:

I'm proofreading this article. Say, if you're at a loose end, would you mind entering some of these corrections?

If you have the presence of mind to notice the questioner has approached your desk and probably wants something, simply responding with a simple

How can I help you?

... may be the most polite, straightforward, and efficient response, unless you're busy, in which case make it clear you'd prefer not to be interrupted unless it is something which needs to be done immediately:

Sorry, I'm in the middle of something at the moment; do you need something urgently?

Of course, if you have no idea what they are getting at and do not wish to indulge them, feel free to direct them to the menu for the nearest source of hot food.

0

They aren't looking for a real answer. They want some gentle chaffing. Best answer would be something that takes their question literally to the extreme.For example: 1."Usually, it's my wife, before dinner time."; 2. "I heard there's a hot new secretary over in (purchasing dept); 3. "Oh, that smell! I thought I'd scraped most of the dog dung off my shoes!".

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