As an Italian in Australia for a while, I noticed this very common use of "how are you" as a greeting to welcome you into a shop, and customers answer with a second "how are you". A stranger, in Italy, will never ask you such a question, you don't know him, he doesn't know you, and "common sense" imposes a "good morning" or similar, not even "hello", too friendly.

This is why is NEVER got used to that, and every time I ended up stuttering something like "fine, how are you", or just "fine" inevitably feeling a bit stupid and/or awkward. Point is that I couldn't help myself putting the actual answer ("fine") in my formal answer ("how are you?/and you?").

My questions are

  1. Don't you feel the weirdness of answering a question with the same question? I understand that's common use, but to me that's something really confusing, I had a hard time trying to deal with it.

  2. Every time I answered with just "fine, I was looking for a book blablabla..." I thought "ok, that was wrong, I said 'fine' and nobody does that, I didn't ask 'how are you' and everybody does that." Was my answer actually impolite (or something else) because of these two reasons?

  • I agree on that. 'How are you?' comes in greetings when you 'know' someone. In fact, my vote is this greetings is more for asking someone who's on the mend. 'Hello,' on the other hand, seems to be way too common to greet some stranger irrespective of the country you are in. – Maulik V Dec 1 '15 at 8:36
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    As a native Australian, it is a bit strange, but I think it really is just to get conversation going. e.g. "Morning, how are you?" "Good, thanks." "So how can I help you today?" "..." – Riley Francisco Dec 1 '15 at 8:38
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    Before visiting Australia I thought you couldn't say "hello" to a stranger, but I had to change my mind. I think our (very friendly) "ciao" is more like "hi" in english – Luigi Cortese Dec 1 '15 at 8:41
  • Italians don't ask strangers Come va? – user20792 Dec 1 '15 at 12:19
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    Okay, so Come va? is an actual question in Italian. In English How are you? can either be an actual question, desiring a response; or it can be, and most often is, a greeting with little to no interest in getting any other response than Fine. Thank you, and how are you? – user20792 Dec 1 '15 at 21:10

I think the weirdness comes from the fact that this is not really a conversation, in the sense that it is not an exchange of information between people who intend to be talking to each other.

In some cultures (including the US, where I am), it is considered friendly to acknowledge someone entering (and leaving) your store with some kind of greeting. Asking after their health or well-being is a formula; practically no one expects you to answer the question in its actual meaning.

This is part of a set of formulas that I think practically every culture has for conversation in one way or another. There are papers written on the subject. In this case, perhaps you could think of it as the speaker's way of letting you know that they have noticed you and are free to talk with you; you can reply with any formula of your own ("fine", "ok", "better than a sharp stick in the eye") to acknowledge that they have spoken; if what you say sounds enough like a formula itself (the first two, not the last), then you will not be expected to continue a conversation.

But if you came into the shop looking for something you wanted help with, the fact that they said something might help you know they were free to listen to what you wanted at that time, in case you would otherwise have been shy about asking.

  • What you say makes perfect sense. How about my second question? – Luigi Cortese Dec 1 '15 at 11:59
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    I'm sorry, forgot to address that one. Saying "Fine, was looking for xyz..." is a reasonable response. "Fine, and you?" is another. If you wish to acknowledge the convention that someone is asking after your health, you can say "Fine, thank you." There is nothing wrong with the responses you are giving. It seems to me, from what you say, that you are feeling awkward because these are not conventions you are used to, and that your responses are very much ok. – rcook Dec 1 '15 at 13:00

In the United States, your reply would be perfect.

The purpose of the shopkeeper's question was to start a conversation on a friendly note, with the possibility that the conversation would increase the chance of a profitable transaction. Most Americans answer polite inquiries like "How are you?" with a generic positive reply, such as "I'm fine." or "Fine." I am unusual in that I sometimes pause and give a brief, honest answer. (Often that answer is "I'm fine." or "Fine.")

Your continuing the conversation with "I was looking for a book blablabla..." would be perfectly natural, and is exactly the sort of segue that a shopkeeper would hope for.

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