19

When somebody ask me What's up? I answer I am well, thank you.

Is that the expected answer, or should I answer something else?
What does a native speaker understand when I reply like that?

24

Ah, this phrase is all about context. The meaning of "What's up?" and expected responses depend on the circumstances in which the question is asked.

From what I remember, the phrase is derived from "What's the update?" which is basically checking up how things are going. It has however fallen into common usage both in the US (I think) and UK.

As a greeting:

"What's up?" or here (West Midlands of England) commonly just "sup" is a general greeting, you can response with answers like "Not much", "Nothing", "Alright" etc.

In this context, the response is just a return of the greeting, or a confirmation that all is going normally. This phrase is similar to "Hello" or "How are you" in common usage.

Example:

Person 1: "What's up man?"

Person 2: "F*** all mate" (my typical response to friends, this means nothings going on and I'm bored because of it :^) )

As an enquiry

In this context, "What's up?" can be when the asker of the question may have observed someone having some trouble, or is distressed at something.

It's a polite, non-intrusive way of checking all is relatively okay or if they need assistance. A similar phrase would be "What's the matter?" or "What's the problem?".

When facing criticism or disapproval of something, a common phrase is "What's up with it?" meaning the asker is not sure what they have done wrong and wants to know what said issue is.

Example:

Person 1 notices Person 2 with their head in their hands at their desk

Person 1: "What's up?"

Person 2: "Nothing, just tired."

So to properly answer your question after rambling a bit. The idea behind "I am well" is sort of right - you are confirming that all is well and normal. So in this case "Nothing" or "Not much" or "Same Old" are all fine, and will be understood by a native speaker.

Personally, if I was speaking to a non-native English speaker and heard your response I wouldn't think anything of it - it's just a throwaway question so unless something really is up/wrong, the response is irrelevant.

  • 5
    "What's up?" doesn't derive from "What is the update?". As per this 1853 citation, [something] is up means something is happening. It's just another way of saying *What's happening? / What's going on [that might interest me the speaker]? – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 1 '13 at 20:49
  • I am curious, what if you DO NOT wish to reply to the question, what's a good way to counter? For example a reply to "Hello" is a variation of "Hello" and does not require further thought. "What's up" begs the recipient for either a status or an update. How do you respond if you do not wish to nor care to provide either? – Dennis Mar 19 at 19:56
9

"What's up?" means "What is happening?" or "What events are taking place?" or "What news do you have to tell me?"

The most common reply is "Nothing much" or something alone those lines. If something special is happening, you might relate it. Like if someone at work asks you "What's up?", you might reply "We won the XYZ contract" or "Bob was fired" or something relevant happening at the company.

Like most polite greetings, the asker rarely expects any sort of in-depth answer, and any polite response would be considered appropriate. "What's up?" "Oh, hi Sally". It doesn't answer the question at all, but few would think it strange.

4

"Same old"

Some statement of current state of affairs. It's a greeting, but it's also a question about news. Mention anything important that happened recently, or give a non-committing answer that says "no news", e.g. "Same as always", "The usual", or if you want to be facetious, say "the sky" or "the roof" depending if you're outdoors or indoors.

Specifically, it's different from "How are you" - it's not just about you but things that concern you too. So, answering "Sally is pregnant" is a perfectly good answer if that's the current news.

3

In addition to Felix Weir's excellent answer, you can also use other responses based on the situation and your mood.

Walking out of a frustrating meeting with your boss?

Coworker: What's up?

You: My blood pressure.

Feeling sarcastic? Some responses to what's up might be:(note, use sparingly. This can get annoying really fast if overused)

The sky.

A preposition.

The ceiling.

The lights.

  • 3
    These are all very passive-aggressive sarcastic responses to what is usually a friendly greeting. If I said "What's up?" to a colleague and they replied with any of those responses, I would assume they were being unfriendly. – Matt Feb 28 '13 at 22:29
  • @Matt you're right. Maybe I should have stated that those should only be used if you are feeling sarcastic – Kevin Feb 28 '13 at 22:33
  • 5
    The sky, the ceiling, and the lights are usually pretty well received – when uttered amongst boys between the ages of 12 and 15. I'd avoid such responses in general, unless you want to sound like one of them. – J.R. Feb 28 '13 at 22:39

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.