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When a stranger approaches me with a generic salutation without a specific request -- e.g., "Hi!", how should I politely inquire about their purpose or matter/ topic of addressing me ?

Directly it would be "what do you want from me?", but how to say the same politely? In my native language it is something like "How can I serve you?", but this sounds to me excessively submissive -- in fact I am not their servant; maybe "In what way can I help you?" ?; but this sounds to me too specific, as offering some service, i.e., as asking for being assigned a specific task, so that a natural expected answer to such a question understood too literally could be "two mugs of beer, please" (once in such a situation I got an answer "send me money" -- I guess it was a joke ridiculing the literal meaning of my question ) ; instead, I want to make it clear that my reply is just a generic polite formula with no literal meaning, i.e., I want to be nice to them, but not to offer my service really.

For example, if somebody messages me with a "Hi :)", an answer that I might expect to such a polite question that I am looking for, could be "professor, I am interested in studying PhD in your Lab under your guidance" or "I want to publish a paper in your journal", if this is the case i.e., if this was the motivation (subject / topic) of their contacting me. -- not "send me money" or "two cups of coffee, please".

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  • Once I myself contacted somebody in Internet and the answer I got was do we know each other?, which I understood as equivalent to what do you want from me?, but I don't think this is the answer to my question: this was not too polite, and was not an explicit inquire about my purposes. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 3:41
  • What did they say when they addressed you? That must be a guide to the shape of the answer. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 4:14
  • Please don't use back ticks Like this for quotes. It messes up the formatting, by changing the font and putting the text in grey background. the backticks are used for computer code, and should never be used here. Just use ordinary quote marks " Also split up text into paragraphs by leaving a blank line between paragraphs.
    – James K
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 6:51
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    This is not really a question about English language or grammar, but about interpersonal relationships and human interaction. Assuming you are willing to speak to them, the normal thing in the UK or US would be to say hello back, maybe exchange a few pleasantries ("How are you?" "Nice weather" etc) then they should say what they want. Demanding to know what they're doing is considered rude no matter how it's asked. If you want rid of them, of course you can be rude, but I get the impression you don't want to do that.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 15:10
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    @StuartF Thank you for your comment! But sorry to disagree. As any idiom, Politeness clichés are language-specific (or, culture- specific). My question was not about what to do with the person -- I know I should not kick him or shoot him. Supposing that I want o be nice, the question is about English-specific cliché Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 0:33

3 Answers 3

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It depends very much on the situation. Responses suggesting service are appropriate, if they come from a representative of a business or organisation to a private citizen. They are not a good choice in the other direction. Between private citizens, they used to be much more common, when one might ask for the other’s hospitality. But that is rare these days.

A less formal “what can I do for you?” is perhaps the only response of this sort that I would think is still typical. It implies that the speaker is ready and willing to have some of their time taken up by this unexpected enquiry.

“Can I help you?” is also an option, but I find that outside of a business context, it often has a negative connotation: “you clearly have a problem”, or even “you’re causing me problems, so I’ll ‘help’ you to go away”. (Within a business context, it’s generally fine: you can suggest that customers have a problem, if it’s the sort of problem you’re in business to solve!)

Politeness in English often takes the form of being indirect. Many questions can be made (more) polite by asking if you can ask. So instead of “what is this about?” (direct; not actually rude, but not trying to be polite either), you can say “can I ask what this is about?” (“May” instead of “can” is slightly more formal.)

If the situation is very informal, a typical response would be to simply invite them to talk: “Yes?” or “go ahead.” (“What’s up?” falls into this category too, but is probably friendlier than you want to be with a stranger.)

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I would say, What's going on? to that stranger. Very simple. Very informal. Very common.

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There is no standard response.

If someone strange contacts me on Skype with "Hi". Then I use the Skype tooks to block and ignore them. They are probably scammers and if not, well not my problem.

On a phone, I'd speak first. But if all they say is "Hi", I'd put the phone down. Again I'm not interested in chatting to random scammers.

In the street, I would probably not use English at all. I would turn to look at them, and raise my eyebrows. The "eyebrow flash" is a universal sign of I want/am willing to make contact with you, so invites the other person to speak.

I might use "Yes?". Paired with the eyebrow flash it implicitly Yes, I am ready to listen to you. Similarly "Uh ha" or some non-lexical sound, to mean I heard you, so please continue.

I might use "Can I help?" That is the most explicit question.

I might say "Sorry" to mean "Sorry I won't talk to you"

I might ignore them - that is rather rude, but they are a stranger and they don't have any right to talk to me about anything.

I would not say more. They are the person who is initiating contact, it is up to them to do the talking.

If this is a text message, my preferences would be ignore, "Yes?" or "Can I help?". In text, I would normally ignore messages from strangers.

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  • Thank you! Probably I failed to describe the situation correctly: I agree that if a stranger addresses me in the street and is in direct sight, then the best answer is a surprised facial expression, as you correctly advise. However, if one says "Hi" to me on Skype or WharsApp ? Or just calls me on phone ? with the same "Hi, are you professor Gelbukh?" -- well, Hi!, yes, that's me, what do you want ? -- so my question was what is a more polite way to answer? Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 20:09
  • I saw somebody advised "Thank you for your interest in me!" -- but this does not seem to me natural for a private person. It could be an option for a company, and this does not include inquiring about what they want. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 20:10
  • I address the last part. If someone unknown to me randomly says "Hi" on Skype, I block and ignore. - I would treat that as unwanted. They need to approach me properly and politely, and that means not just saying "Hi". On the phone it doesn't apply since I speak first. And then again it is up to them to speak. If they don't - sorry, they are ignored.
    – James K
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 22:24
  • Thank you! But the question was explicitly about a polite reaction. "block and ignore" is clearly not. There are situations when one wants to be polite: E.g, the stranger might be a potential customer,who I want to welcome. My question pretty clearly implies this situation: I said that I was a professor who needs students to work with, and an editor who needs authors. Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 2:59
  • Indeed, as you have clarified your question, my answer turns into a "frame challenge". That is my answer is "You don't politely respond." At very least, a response isn't needed. If they have something to say, they can say it. My personal experience is that random strangers making contact are usually trying to get my money, in one way or another.
    – James K
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 6:30

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