Monday, January 24, 2011

How's it Going?

For three years I listened to the stereotype that American relationships are shallow. The evidence? Greetings. Like “how’s it going?” Clearly, because the person asking the question doesn’t care about the answer, the question is shallow, thus the entire relationship is shallow, thus all American relationships are shallow. Ipso facto, case in point, if then, told ya so, hah!

But while back at home I realized just how ridiculous it can sound. I was on the phone with a buddy of mine, who just one day later would relate a story as way of introducing me as to how I once ate a piece of bread soaked in food coloring for a dollar in 8th grade. My teeth turned food coloring brown. I told everyone not to worry. A swig of Coke and my pearly whites were pearly white again. You may ask, how does an 8th grader stupid enough to eat a piece of bread soaked in food coloring for a dollar know that Coke will clean his teeth? You would be right in asking that. The answer? Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. An amazing tome filled with useful knowledge. The point of this was not to get you to buy Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader (although you should) but to show that I clearly have known said friend for quite some time. Our relationship is not shallow.

That’s why the greeting was so ridiculous. It went something along these lines:
What’s up?
Not much, how’s it going?
Not bad.

At this point, the questions were actually repeated in full form with the intent of actually asking and actually listening.
What are you doing?
How are you?
What have you been up to?

That’s when I realized just how shallow it actually does sound. There was no intent of being shallow; it was just taking the place of the formal hello. But to the uninitiated, or someone who may not have English as a near native language, that nuance may be lost.

Even when speaking with people you don’t know, salespeople at a store for example, I find myself saying how’s it going. Not because I know them, or care to know them necessarily, but as a replacement to hello.

Looking back though, I found this happening to an extent in Swedish too. Not as widespread by any means, but the use of "läget" as a greeting amongst friends was quite common in the circles I found myself frequenting. There was no real need for an answer; the meat of the conversation came later anyway. I never once saw it as shallow. Probably because it fit so well into my English way of speaking. I suppose not picking up on that nuance could be said for someone just learning the Swedish language. I had my English language skills to fall back on, so it never seemed strange to ask a question and not necessarily need an answer.

I’d like to think I solved the mystery of this American stereotype. Probably not, but I do think this plays a big role. It just took me three years in Sweden and six months in the US to figure out. No problem right?

Welcome to Swedish-America. How’s it going? No, really, how are you?

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  1. Hey! I was searching about blogs about some countries and I've found yours:)
    Your blog is very interesting and I hope it helps me with some ideas of what to post on my new blog lol ;-)

    (Brazilians can't be quiet not for one moment, for example whenever we're standing on a line we start talking to the person behind/in front of us, even if we've never met before! And it's easy for us to talk about everything, even about our own lives, like "My pet is sick and I don't know what to do", we talk like we're best friends! - I guess it will sound crazy to you but that's what happens)

    Btw, how are you doing? LOL

  2. my god ur back. i thought you quit. i guess moving home changed your whole concept, right? anywho, i think shallow, empty phrases are better than no phrases at all. id rather someone say 'how's it going' and not really care then to just ignore me all day like im a lint ball.

    btw, something off-topic i'd like your opinion on, do you think the swedish system has a low value on education and focuses a lot on experience? it seems that a high school education with some experiences trumps a masters degree. i just wondered if you noticed that as well...

  3. Jag tycker det är minst lika vanligt i Sverige. Jag hälsar nästan alltid på mina kompisar med "Tja, vad händer?". Även om jag tydligt kan se att ingenting alls händer. "Hur mår du" säger man ju också jämt, och svaret blir alltid typ, "Jag mår bra, själv?".

    Det kan kanske vara olika mellan kulturer inom Sverige, jag är 20 år och bor i en förort till Göteborg. Är du 65 och bor i Lidingö hälsar man kanske på ett annat sätt...

  4. I dont think thats why the stereotype american is considered shallow. Cause as u point out we (swedes) do the same.

    I think you should blame Hollywood, in any interview with a random movie star: "Ooh I just looove working with (i.e)Tom Cruise" (yeah right) and without the good looks and fifteen facelifts your not worth anything.

  5. I find it interesting, because I find the 'Hi, how are you today,' ritual in the US to be just that - a Hello ritual.

    After traveling to Japan and talking to my Swedish friends about it, I was surprised by how many of them found it soooo quaint the Japanese formalized greetings to each other - but despised the American ones as not really heartfelt and fake.

    I think it is a bit of a dance - because you know how much many Americans complain about rudeness if you do not partake in the greeting ritual - but that is all it is. No - I don't care how you are, really. But I ask because this is how we greet each other. Ok?

    Have a nice day :)

  6. An English woman once told me that when she was travelling in Australia she was offended by how people constantly asked her how she was. She felt it was insincere and none of their business anyway!

    I can't speak for Americans, but here in Australia engaging in that kind of chitchat with acquaintances or strangers, especially service people (eg. taxi drivers, shop assistants, waiters) has at least some roots in egalitarianism. It's a way of indicating that you don't think you're any better than them as a human being, even if they happen to be serving your meal or driving your taxi; and also a way of publicly acknowledging your shared humanity.
    Someone here who steadfastly refused to engage in that little social ritual would get a reputation for being a bit up themselves (=stuck up, arrogant).

    I suspect there is a similar vein of egalitarianism in Americans' willingness to exchange social platitudes with strangers. Unfortunately a brief "how are you" is frequently followed up by a blow by blow description of their own health for the past five years, making the enquiry look like a gambit so they could talk about themselves for an hour. Also, the corporatization of some of these greeting rituals - certain companies demanding that their employees wish every customer a nice day, for example, really doesn't help, especially if the poor worker is having a terrible day herself and really can't pull it off.

  7. I actually just say 'hello' and rarely follow up with a "how ya doing?' since casual pleasantries should remain just that: casual and pleasant, not long and intense :)

    When I lived in Paris, I learned that one thing you must say when you go into any shop (like the bakery) is to greet the person behind the counter when you come in and when you leave. Otherwise, you're a barbarian with no manners -- something the French think of us Americans anyway, but this fuels this belief.

    You also have to use the honorific "Vous" on strangers or older people. People get REALLY offended if you use the casual "tu."

    So I guess, every culture has their idiosyncracies :o) I like it though. It takes all kinds to make the world.

  8. I am another Brazilian girl, though a lot shyer (does this word exist?) than the average Brazilian, I think (if such a person exists), but we do the same in our greetings over here and are even more repetitive, I should say. "Hello, how are you doing? Are you doing okay?" ("Oi, como vai, tudo bem?") And the person answers "Okay, how are you doing, are you all right?". It is really also just a replacement of "Hello". In that sense, I think it is more polite than just saying hello, even though the interest in the other person's life might not be genuine.
    But we use this among people we know and who are being introduced to. I don't do that to people at stores, at the bus stop, though I tend to say "good morning" to everyone at a bus stop and start with that "good morning", "good afternoon" if I need to approach someone at a store or somewhere else for information, for example. And if the contact needs to be really brief or if I am interrupting a conversation to ask about something, I just go with "excuse me, can you tell me...".
    I think it is just people picking on Americans, for whatever reasons. I myself found that characteristic positive in Americans, I would say Americans are outgoing and very "simpáticos" (dear, now I can't find an English word for it), not shallow, just judging from that kind of thing.

  9. Me again. Just remembered what once happened to me in England: a English friend had just had an urgent surgery and I had just heard of it so I phoned her and asked "how did that happen?" and what I wanted was to convey my worrying about her, to say that I was surprised and felt sorry that she had to go through it. Does anybody get what I'm saying or do I sound crazy? It was like "oh, my God, how could this happen to you, poor girl". Well, the poor friend went on to tell me everything about the first pain she felt and how the problem was identified by the doctor, how the surgery went, what was done in the surgery etc. But the problem for me was not that I was not interested in knowing about her sincerely, but that I felt it was embarrassing for her to be telling me all that (we were good friends, but not really close friends), it was surgery in the ovaries and I felt she thought I was asking for details of it and felt obliged to tell me. And, not to be even more rude than I was (though unintentionally), I could not tell her "hey, you don't have to tell me all that, that is not what I meant when I asked you 'how did that happen'".
    Okay, took too much of everyone's time today and now, back to work.
    Greetings, everyone!

  10. Hello ! Im from Ibiza Spain and when you ask : How are you ? In Spain you really wont to know about this person. We are too much open : ))
    Hug from Ibiza
    Have a nice day.

  11. Haters always be hatin!
    Countries are different. Comparing them is pretty silly. 'Blame Hollywood'? If Sweden had anything like Hollywood would we be blaming them for Sweden's shallowness. "But", you say "Sweden would never produce anyhting like a Hollywood." And I would say, "Precisely!" And slap you in the face with my plunker.

  12. Just discovered your blog - there are interesting things, but I must say I'm a bit shocked by the way you treated your tropical fish. Maybe I'm being too cheesy or something, but I would never be able to leave an animal in an apartment expecting that it probably won't be able to survive in my absence. And I would probably gather information about the appropriate water temperature. Yes, none of this is my business, but since you posted about this on the blog, it's everyone's business, isn't it? I don't want to sound too judgemental, because we all do silly things, but I was amazed by how you didn't seem to feel even a bit guilty - and I just wanted to share my feeling, because I think too many people treat animals like nice and funny toys.

  13. And there is me again... Been running away from my own probems lately :P
    Still about the greetings: I think that a "how's it going?" question serves not only as a replacement to "hello", but as a way for both speakers (interlocutors?) to establish if each one of them is okay enough to talk at that time. You are giving the other person a chance to say either "i'm okay - we can talk" or "i'm a bit shaken - can we talk at another time?". And that knowledge can be gathered not just by the actual words spoken, but from the person's tone of voice, in a very subliminal way.

    And back to embarrassing greeting situations... twice at different funerals I approached the relatives of the deceased with a "how's it going?", just because it is so automatic to greet using that expression. Of course I regret it to this day (and probably to the day someone says that to a relative of mine at my funeral - where I will be like "phew... I was not the only one!") and I do not think I am very popular with these families :(

  14. Hejsan! I'm American and lived in Sweden when I was 16 for a year. I definitely saw right away that Swedes thought "See you later" or "Call you later" meant that I should see or call them later. In America, these are just conversation enders. In Sweden, I definitely saw how undependable us Americans must be. But as I went to college (and studied rhetoric and linguistics) I realized that this was just a divide in cultural customs and shouldn't be seen as commentary on Americans' personalities as a whole.

    Great blog!

  15. Great blog! I just moved here and am trying to figure out all this stuff. I don't want people to think I'm shallow, but the one Swede I see regularly, when I ask how's it going he always tells me this really long story about what's going on with him, and I'm kind of like, okaaaaay! Thanks@

  16. Hairy....been absent for a while, got to get back on here.....just an interesting tidbit for you. In Mandarin, the gretting Ni Hao is the equivalent of hello, no response needed but hello back. Add an interogative particle on this phrase (Ni Hao Ma?) and now we have a question that requires an answer indicating you are doing well or not...

  17. I do think that this really is a sort of ritual to some extent that gets lost in translation.