When I teach children for the first time, one of the first things I teach them is a lesson on greetings. Why? Because how someone introduces themselves can tell you a lot about their English level. Don’t believe me? Let me give you an example.
Chances are, if you learned English as a second language in school, you were taught that the correct answer to ”How are you?” was “Fine thank you, and you?” I have met countless students, who have reasonably good English, that still use this phrase to robotically reply to this question. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this answer, but when people hear you use this phrase, they assume you have poor English. This is because they have also heard every single other English learner use the exact same phrase before.
So what can I do? How can I teach my child to sound more natural? A great start is banning the use of the above phrase. Too many people say “fine”, but you don’t want “fine” English. You want great English. So, the next step is learning some other ways to approach this question. There are two main parts of a greeting. The “hello” part and the answer to “How are you?” Let’s take a look at both of these, and see what we can learn about greetings in English.
How to Say Hi in English
It sounds like the easiest question in the world, but getting your hello right can be trickier than you might expect. Greetings are difficult because different countries or regions favor different greetings. As well, we don’t just say “Hello, how are you?” We will often say say “Hi, how are you doing?”, “Hey, how have you been lately?”, or “Good morning, nice to see you.” These are just a few samples of different greetings we use regularly.
Now, the most important thing to remember when choosing which greeting to use, is what is your relationship with this person. Are they a stranger? Your boss? You mom? Your friend? How formal or casual is your relationship with this person? This is important because you won’t greet your boss the same way you would greet your best friend, or vice versa.
Formal English Greetings
These greetings could be for people older than you, for bosses, or for someone who you do not know. When in doubt, it may be better to stick to a formal greeting until you know that a casual one is appropriate for the circumstances. Below we have listed a couple of common ways to say hello in North American English.
For the first time you see someone:
Hello (sir, mam, name), it’s nice to meet you.
For someone you have not seen in a while:
Hello, how have you been?
For someone you see often:
Good morning/evening/afternoon, how are you today?
A basic, safe greeting:
Hello, how are you?
Casual English Greetings
These are greetings you would use with people you know well. Work colleagues, classmates, friends, or family are all people you could use casual greetings with when you see them.
Hi/Hey, how are you doing?
Hi/Hey, long time, no see.
How’s it going?
How are things?
Hey, it’s good to see you.
English Slang Greetings
In my opinion, it is easier to not use slang greetings. If you are an advanced learner who feels confident in using them with friends, then it might be a good idea to experiment with them. However, generally, it is better to just play it safe with greetings and stick to the basic ones outlined above.
Slang can also be very specific to the community it comes from, so by adapting it, say by seeing it on TV, without doing it correctly, it can come off as very awkward. Slang greetings also go in and out of fashion quite quickly, so what was current five years ago, may not be an appropriate greeting anymore. Having an understanding of slang and what it means will be useful for your English, but you need to know that slang can be a difficult thing to use properly, and you need to be aware of that before you decide to try to adopt it.
How to Answer “How are you?”
This is a slightly more difficult question because your answer will depend on what question you are asked. It is important to remember to actually listen to the question and provide an answer that fits that question. An easy way to do this is to pay attention to the verb tense that is used in the question, and to replicate it in the answer. Just don’t forget to conjugate the verb so that it matches the subject of your sentence.
How are you? I am good.
Hey, how was your weekend? It was good.
How have you been? I’ve been good.
Although all of these questions are essentially asking the same thing, it is still important that you respond using the correct verb tense to match the question. Another important thing to consider is your actual answer. In my above answers, I have used “good”, but there are many, many different choices we could use. These are just some examples you could use, but of course this is not an exhaustive list of all of the options out there on how to answer “How are you?”
A bit off (feeling sick)
I’ve been better.
Most of these responses are on the casual side. For formal conversations, I answer “How are you?” with “okay”, “good”, or “great.” It can also be good to add “thank you for asking” into your answer when speaking formally. Formal questions will usually be made up of full sentences, whereas casual ones can be kept shorter by cutting out some of the words that can be understood through context alone.
Sample Formal Conversation #1
Good morning, how are you today?
I’m great. Thanks for asking. How are you?
I’m good as well, thanks.
Sample Formal Conversation #2
Hello, how have you been recently?
I’ve been okay. And how about you?
I’ve been a bit busy, but good. Thanks for asking.
Sample Casual Conversation #1
Hey, how are you doing?
Not bad, you?
Pretty good thanks.
Sample Casual Conversation #2
Hey _____, how’s life?
It’s been crazy busy lately. How’ve you been?
It’s been great.
Greetings can be a tricky part of any language, for both native speakers and for language learners. To get better at them, I would recommend a couple of things. First, I would say a great place to start is to listen to people around you, and to take note of how they give and respond to greetings. Watch TV shows, and see what the characters do for greetings in their personal or work life. Second, always remember to be authentic. People can tell when you are answering with a memorized answer. Answering “How are you?” does not need to be a deep analysis of your current state of mind, but it helps to show that you are being real with your answer. People will usually react more favorably to an imperfect, genuine answer than to a memorized, perfect one.
Teaching English Greetings to ESL Children
Many ESL children are taught to answer the question “How are you?” with emotion adjectives like “happy,” “sad,” or “angry.” For your young children, there are some upsides to this. It is a good way to teach them this important vocabulary, and I find it is generally easier to get a child to explain why they are angry compared to why they are “good.” However, doing this may risk forming a bad habit. Generally speaking, emotion words should be used in response to the question “How are you feeling?” and not “How are you?”
When teaching children, I would teach them how to ask and respond to both “How are you?” and “How are you feeling?” When working on answers, keep it short and easy. I am good/bad/great/okay. I am happy/sad/angry. As they progress, practice more complicated adjectives. Eventually, progress to asking them why. Have them describe what events happened to make them feel the way they do. Although these are basic questions, they can be powerful tools to warm-up their English, to review grammar, vocabulary, and a way to practice everyday conversation they can use for the rest of their lives.
Obviously, due to the size of this topic, I could not go over all greetings or examples. If you have any further questions, feel free to ask them in our comment section below, and we can help you out as best we can. Good luck!