When should I say what's up and when should I say how are you?

Is it about the person's age or the extent of my knowledge of the person?

  • 1
    You could compare the number of hits you get searching Google Books for all 4 permutations of How are you/What's up sir/pal, which should give you some idea of relative levels of "formality" for the two when used as conventional greetings. Nov 28, 2019 at 15:49
  • I have never said or heard "What's up?" except in the case where there might be surprising or troubling information. For example someone rushes up to me while looking over their shoulder. The customary rhetorical greeting though, is "How are you?" Nov 28, 2019 at 16:16
  • @WeatherVane I think it was popular in the 80's/90's (in my part of the UK anyway) - have you not heard the shortened wassup/'sup? greeting either? (Wasn't it in a budweiser advert? wazzzuuuuuuupp?)
    – Smock
    Nov 28, 2019 at 16:25
  • @WeatherVane: It's often transcribed in "eye dialect" as Wassup, man! (US), or Wassup mate? (UK). Dunno why the UK version seems more likely to have a question mark - perhaps we Brits are more likely to really care about whether the addressee actually has a problem. Nov 28, 2019 at 16:25
  • Hm I never lived on that street. Nov 28, 2019 at 16:26

1 Answer 1


Both these phrases can be used to send the social message that you are making a friendly greeting. In other words, they can be used phatically. Used so both phrases mean the the same, but the social propriety of each may differ. In general, "How are you" is formal, always polite, but perhaps a bit too stiff for close acquaintances in any casual context. "What's up" is informal and may be viewed as lacking in gravity or respect. If you are being introduced to the Secretary General of the U.N. for the first time and say, "What's up, Tony," you are likely to be thought a boor. If you are happy to see your sister for the third time this week, you might well say, "What's up today."

Of course, these phrases can also be used non-phatically. For example, if you have just been in a car wreck and a cop asks "how are you," he is asking about your sense of physical wellbeing rather than sending a friendly greeting. And the question "what's up" would make no sense in that context at all.

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