Almost daily, we’re asked, “How are you?” The question—and its popular variation, “How are you doing?”—appears in emails from strangers and acquaintances and in polite face-to-face conversation. But what do we really know about this ubiquitous phrase?
What’s the difference between “How are you” and “How are you doing?”
The phrases sound similar, but in certain contexts, they may have subtly different meanings.
How are you? makes a slightly more personal inquiry about someone’s health or mood. It focuses on the person’s condition. It’s also a bit more formal than “How are you doing?”
How are you doing? is a general inquiry. It can ask about what’s going on in someone’s environment (similar to questions like, “How’s your day been so far?”) or in some contexts can mean “How are you faring?” or “Do you need anything?” (Think of a server approaching your table at a restaurant and asking, “How are we doing here?”) It’s considered a bit more casual and conversational than “How are you?”
In an audible conversation, the perceived differences between the two phrases can vary regionally. Take this example from a forum discussion on the topic:
—cricketswool on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange
In my experience as a native speaker in the Middle Atlantic region . . . “How are you?” is a bland greeting for someone you haven’t seen for a while, while “How are you doing?” . . . may be an actual inquiry. The latter is more common when there is some expectation that the subject might not be doing well.
For example: “Hey, haven’t seen you in ages! How are you?” versus . . . “How are you doing: is the new baby still keeping you up all night?”
When spoken, both phrases convey unique meanings depending on which word is accented. “How are you?” might come across as a one-size-fits-all greeting, but “How are you?” would have a more personal or sincere tone, or even one of concern. A rather flat “How are you doing?” can become outright flirtatious when spoken, “How are you doing?” (especially if you drop the “are” and affect your best Joey Tribianni accent.)
Which is more professional: “How are you?” or “How are you doing?”
When you write an email or other text greetings, the stakes change a bit. Which phrase sounds more professional?
Both phrases are appropriate for work correspondence, but stick to “How are you?” in more formal settings. It’s also better to use “How are you?” when you don’t know the correspondent very well—it’s generic enough to be considered a polite (if rather meaningless) gesture.
5 Alternatives to Writing “How are you doing?” and “How are you?” in Email
Because they’re so ubiquitous, these phrases can disappear into the background or, worse, sound like insincere filler. And yet, sometimes you want to start an email with a bit of polite banter. Here are a few options.
1 It was fun to bump into you at [event]. Did you come away as fired up as I did?
If you know your contact, consider starting with something more personalized. A shared experience like a conference is always a good starting point, particularly if it’s relevant to the conversation to follow. Look for common ground and start from there.
2 I hope your day has been upbeat and productive.
Who doesn’t want an upbeat, productive day? Think about the other person’s work setting and come up with a few fun or clever ways to wish them well. Another example would be . . .
3 Are the ideas flowing along with the coffee?
Try something like this out on a Monday morning to beat the back-to-work doldrums.
If you follow your contact on Twitter or keep an eye on their blog, you can’t lose with a comment about their professional tweet or post. Just make sure your comment is a natural lead-in to the topic of your email or your comment will seem irrelevant.
5 Hi [Name],
You don’t have to start with any friendly preamble. In fact, people who receive a lot of email will appreciate you getting straight to the point.
3 Ways to answer “How are you?” in Conversation
Most people agree it’s best not to take “How are you?” too literally. Although everyone asks, few people want you to recite a laundry list of the day’s events or personal struggles. Context clues will tell you whether the person asking is making a sincere inquiry about your welfare or just engaging in polite chit-chat.
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1 I’m fine, thanks. How are you?
By far the most socially acceptable response to “How are you?” is “Fine, thanks” with a reciprocal, “How are you?”
2 I’m having one of those days. How about you?
This type of exchange is appropriate if you’ve come upon someone who seems to be having a challenging day and you want to share a little friendly commiseration. Be warned, though, that if the other person isn’t also having “one of those days,” you might seem as though you’re fishing for attention.
3 Happier than a seagull with a french fry!
If you’re in a good mood, there’s nothing wrong with sharing it. You might brighten someone’s day in the process. Can you think of a few clever similes to make your own?