39

I'm a non native speaker of English. In our learning we were told that when we say hello to someone we use equivalent phrase:

How do you do?

In response we do say:

How do you do?

But I'm unsure about the usage in the USA or UK. I haven't heard from them. I'm an Indian.

Is this the correct way of introducing someone?

  • 13
    It's not common except in textbooks and Oscar Wilde plays. When being polite & textbookish, American-speakers would probably say something like "Fine, thank you. And you?" – user264 Mar 25 '13 at 10:13
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    I'm in the U.S., and I can't remember the last time I heard that exact phrase--and I've never in my life responded to it by repeating the question. – snailboat Mar 25 '13 at 10:51
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    I commonly respond to questions like "Hey, whats up?" with "Hey, hows it going?". Both parties understand its just a way to say hello. It would be just as normal to answer it by saying "Doing well, and you?" – Jameo Mar 25 '13 at 14:25
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    You might get stuck in an infinite loop like that. – mowwwalker Mar 25 '13 at 19:10
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    @Michael Edenfield: I'm 70 years old, working class, & a graduate of a snooty Ivy League university, so I know what the traditional polite response is (I learned it in university if not before from scenes in snooty movies), but it ain't common among Americans these days, not in a country where receptionists & others I've never met insist on presumptuously calling me "Bill" instead of "Mr Franke" on our first encounter. They think it's friendly, but I think it's rude &, dare I use the word here?, uppity. BTW, what do you mean by the ambiguous "legitimate response"? – user264 Mar 26 '13 at 4:57
53

You are absolutely correct. "How do you do" is an old fashioned introduction and is an obsolete synonym of "hello", and consequently the proper response is "how do you do?".

Mr Darlington: How do you do, Mrs Windermere?

Mrs Windermere: How do you do, Mr Darlington?

This exchange is exactly equivalent to the more modern (and at the time, more vulgar):

Mr Darlington: Hello, Mrs Windermere.

Mrs Windermere: Hello, Mr Darlington.

Note that the phrase "how do you do" has long since gone out of fashion in British English, and was never in fashion in American English.

Generally speaking, native speakers in both British English and American English now use the phrase hello instead, although how do you do does still persist in some formal settings in British English, generally during formal introductions, and lives on as howdy in some dialects of American English (and like how do you do, the correct response to howdy is howdy).

Don't be surprised if using this phrase that you receive odd looks - the phrase is excessively polite, and may easily be mistaken (even by native speakers) for the more common introduction "How are you?", to which the proper response is "I am fine, thank you, and you?".

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    +1 this if you're a native speaker and did not know this. (As I did not) – user606723 Mar 25 '13 at 15:32
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    I did not know that it is equivalent to 'hello'! That is good knowledge to have in order to irritate someone during a boring dinner. – Anurag Kalia Mar 25 '13 at 18:12
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    So that's where "Howdy" comes from... – Tobias Kienzler Mar 26 '13 at 7:24
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    @TobiasKienzler: Indeed. "Howdy" is a contraction of "howdy do?", which is itself a contraction of "How do you do?". Howdy persists as a synonym of "hello" for the regions that use it (and the proper reply to "howdy" is "howdy"). – Matt Mar 26 '13 at 8:14
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    @Matt: The British slang equivalent of "Howdy" is "Right?" (a contraction of "Are you all right?") to which the standard response is: "Right." ("Yes, I'm all right, thanks.") – Stu Pegg Mar 26 '13 at 9:11
20

How do you do? is a bit formal sounding; at least here in the U.S., we'd usually use the more informal How are you? instead.

How are you? (or, even more informally, How ya' doin'?) is indeed used as a greeting as often as it is as a genuine inquiry, although there are, of course, some exceptions. If I had been in an accident, for example, and was paid a visit as I was laying in my hospital bed, I would not answer "How are you doing?" with another "How are you doing?" Instead, I'd assume the person wanted to know how I was feeling after the accident. However, when I pass someone in the hallway at work, it's not uncommon for one "How're you doing?" to be answered with another, as if we had said "Hello" instead.

Of course, this generalization can vary somewhat based on region and local culture, a fact that was brilliantly parodied in this commericial, where the visitor doesn't seem to recognize that, at least in New York, "How ya' doin'?" is not usually an open-ended question (as it might be in Texas, where the visitor is apparently from).

Usually, when "How are you doing?" is given as an answer to "How are you doing?", that's done among friends and close acquaintances. However, when being introduced to someone for the first time, we generally answer the question, rather than repeat the question, as Bill said in his comment:

How are you doing?
Fine, thanks – and you?

Something like that would probably be the "safest" response if you weren't sure what to say.

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    On your last point, I disagree. "Usually, when 'How are you doing?' is given as an answer to 'How are you doing?', that's done among friends and close acquaintances." I have found the opposite to be true. If a friend or close acquaintance is asking me how I am doing, they are probably genuinely interested in an answer. However, if a stranger or someone I just met asks me the question, they are probably just greeting me. – SShaheen Mar 26 '13 at 16:58
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    @SShaheen: I understand what you mean; it all depends on context and setting. Sometimes, my friends ask how I'm doing because they genuinely want to know. Other times, the phrase is uttered as a simple way to say hello. One can often tell the difference by the tone in the speaker's voice; the question is spoken with sincere concern; the greeting is spoken with a casual nonchalance. – J.R. Mar 26 '13 at 22:36
  • "Safest" is the right term here. It might be worth explicitly noting that depending on local custom, repeating the question verbatim could even be viewed as mildly rude. (The implication being you're either actively refusing to answer the question or else not paying enough attention to realize the person had already asked the question first. Whether the person actually wanted an honest answer is a secondary concern.) – jmbpiano Jun 19 at 1:13
13

In my region (Upstate NY, American English) it is a little different. We do answer the question, although the answer can vary.

The customary greeting is "How are you?"

The response:

  • If I wish to be polite and brief, I will say "I am well. How are you?" ("well", "doing good", "very well" all interchangeable here. "Well" is more formal than "good". "I'm" is less formal than "I am".)
  • If I wish to be very formal and I'll expand the phrase. "I'm very well, thank you. How are you today?" (Adding "very" implies sincerity in informal speech, but can also be added for formality. The thank you is pure formality.)
  • If I am addressing a friend, I'll give a short summary of my recent life that might lead to conversation: "I'm good. We're almost done moving. How are you?"
  • If I'm addressing a close friend and I really want to invite questions about my life, I stray from the standard form: "I'm not doing so well" or "I'm excellent!". (Leaving off the return question is inviting further questions about yourself. After discussing yourself you then ask the return question less formally.)

What you never do is admit you are not good in a formal contact. Even if you are having a very bad day, when a stranger (other than your doctor) asks you how you are doing you use one of the first two forms. Even at funerals, the bereaved often say they are "doing ok", "managing" or "getting by" rather than admitting how they really feel.

The "how are you" question can also be used to expand a brief contact. If someone says, "good evening" you can respond "Good evening to you too. How are you doing this evening?" The first person then has an opportunity to further expand the conversation or shut it down with a simple formal reply.

6

It would be a perfectly normal introductory exchange in formal situations in the UK.

  • In these formal situations, is there no expectation of at least an empty answer to a baldly stated question? – Mitch Mar 25 '13 at 18:40
  • @Mitch. It depends how formal. – Barrie England Mar 25 '13 at 19:50
  • OK. but in what way? The more formal, the more "How do you do" is both unanswerable and then as an empty response is a sufficient utterance? – Mitch Mar 25 '13 at 20:10
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    @Mitch. Yes. 'How do you do?' doesn't expect an answer in the same way that, however perfunctorily, 'How are you?' does. Usually, it's purely phatic. – Barrie England Mar 25 '13 at 20:18
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    @Mitch It functions more as "Nice to meet you" than "How are you?" because it's just a polite acknowledgement of the other person - no response expected. The only difference is that it can be used with someone you've already met. – starsplusplus Apr 7 '14 at 8:15
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Possible snarky responses to the stuffy, outdated "How do you do?":

  • Indeed, how do I do what I do? I even amaze myself sometimes, not to mention others. I just have that magic touch.

  • How do I do? I make like a swimming duck: I appear calm and composed, but below the surface, I'm paddling like hell.

  • How do I do what? You mean how do I in particular do it, or how is it done?

Okay, seriously now. "How do you do" used to be a greeting. It asks the person about their well-being and the progress of their daily affairs. However, it is no longer grammatical for this purpose. In modern English, what person is doing is an ongoing activity, and that requires a progressive tense which is formed using a gerund. The correct grammar is "how are you doing?" The grammar "how do you do" does not refer to an activity which is going on now, and the second "do" requires an object. For example:

  • Help me! How do you do this math problem?

  • How do you do everything, with your demanding job, and all those other commitments?

"How do you do" not followed by anything is now strictly an idiom (or a "canned phrase", if you will) which is used only in formal introductions, and is not equivalent to "how are you". It means the same thing as "pleased to meet you". You can respond with "how do you do", or with "pleased to meet you" or "nice to meet you".

"How do you do" is often contracted to "how'd you do" and spoken quickly. It sounds very similar to the contraction of "how did you do".

Never use "how do you do" on someone you have already met before. If someone whom you have already met says it to you, refer to the snarky responses above.

Lastly, "do you do" could occur without an object in some contrived sentence. For example: "I heard you don't study for exams. How do you do?" This asks the person how he or she performs on the exams in spite of not preparing. Because the exams are not going on now, and it is just a general question about the person's study habit, it is not appropriate to use "how are you doing".

  • +1 for "How do you do" not followed by anything is now strictly an idiom – EnglishLearner Mar 25 '13 at 18:51
-1

If someone says to you:

how do you do

you may simply reply with:

I am [fine / OK / good], and you?

and don't repeat the greeting verbatim.

  • Welcome to English Language Learners! We are trying to provide a reference tool, not unlike Wikipedia for more esoteric topics (such as ELL...). Therefore, please try to avoid 'conversational SMS' spelling in answers. You obviously know how to spell out 'you' so please do so. Also, some well-placed punctuation would likely aid in better understanding your answer. – MrWonderful Dec 29 '14 at 17:52

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