Living and working in Korea, I’ve noticed some differences between Korean and English greetings. It’s a good idea to learn these differences if you want to avoid confusion and sound more natural.
While 안녕하세요 is a standard greeting I can use and respond to in Korea, there are others that don’t translate well due to cultural differences.
Cultural Differences Affect Communication
When Koreans greet me in English, they often ask, Where are you going? or Have you eaten lunch? Even though I understand that these are only greetings and not real questions, my internal reaction is still very culturally based.
Friend or Stranger?
When a Korean I don’t know well (or a total stranger) asks me Where are you going?, I feel a little uncomfortable because this is not a question we ask people outside our social circle when speaking English. Because it is not a greeting in English, it is too personal to ask a stranger this question in English. In English, it only exists as a real question. While it is okay to ask this to people you know, it’s not a good idea to ask this to people you don’t know or are not close to or friendly with. They may think it is a real question and feel uncomfortable or confused about why you are asking.
In many parts of the United States, it is polite to acknowledge other people, including strangers, by saying hello and making small talk. It is rude to ignore strangers in certain situations, including if you step into their personal space, which is normally about an arm’s length in all directions. However, in big cities, like Seoul and New York, where space is limited and people are busy, it would be strange to suddenly say hello to people on the street. The gray area, culturally, involves familiar shared spaces, like elevators or cafeterias. There are many factors, such as body language and how busy someone is, that would determine whether or not it would be appropriate to greet someone.
Levels of Formality
Americans and other native English speakers are more casual compared to Koreans. We don’t think about age when speaking to people, and we often greet other people in a casual way. Of course, we do have levels of formality, but they are not as strict as in Korea. While I would say, How’s it going? to my friends, co-workers, and most of my family, I would not say it to my grandparents or my doctor. Instead, I would say, How are you? Like in Korean, how you greet someone depends on the relationship you have with them.
Natural Ways to Greet People in English
Most of the world knows how to greet someone with a simple Hello. However, there are many more ways to greet someone, and we use them a lot. Let’s look at some basic ones for a dose of real English.
Common Greetings and Natural Responses
What’s up? Not much, you?
What’s new? Nothing, you?
What’s going on? Nothing much, how ’bout you?
How’s it going? Not bad, you?
How are you? Pretty good, you?
Those are the basics. Want to know more? Keep reading!
Trey: Have you eaten? is a polite and caring greeting in Korean. However, it is not a greeting in English.
Jae Hyeop: What?! Are you serious?
Trey: Yes, I’m completely serious. 🙂
When I first came to Korea, I was confused when Koreans would ask me if I had eaten. I thought they wanted to go to lunch with me or really wanted to know what I ate. Were they curious about my lunch? I didn’t know how to answer. What if I had not eaten? Was that bad? Of course, because we were not friends, this seemed very strange and unusual.
Have you eaten? is not a greeting in English and can cause confusion.
Greetings that Begin with How
How are you today?
I’m fine thank you, and you?
I’m sure you have heard this greeting. Stop using it. It is so common in Korea that it has become cliché (overused and unoriginal). Also, B’s response is very formal and not so common between people who know each other. Now, let’s look at some informal ways to greet friends and acquaintances. It’s not complicated once you know how to do it! Practice, and you will be able to do it!
A: Hey, how are you? / Hey, how’s it going? – (*Hey is optional but very common.)
B: Great, you? / Pretty good, and you? / Good, you? / Not bad, how are you?
As you can see, there are many variations, but “fine” is not as common as these responses. Try to start varying your greetings if you want to sound more natural.
Let’s look at another common type of greeting.
Greetings that Begin with What
These greetings are different from greetings that begin with How and cannot be answered in the same way. Let’s take a look.
A: What’s up? / What’s new? / What’s going on?
B: Not much, how ’bout you? / Nothing, you? / Nothing much, you?
How vs. What
If a greeting begins with How, answer with one of these adjectives: good, great, pretty good, not bad.
Be careful! If a question is only a greeting, we do not usually give real answers like terrible and tired. It is the same with the Korean greeting, Have you eaten? You don’t give a long answer with details about what you ate, do you? Don’t be this guy.
We’ll talk about real questions soon, but if it is only a greeting, and not a conversation starter, keep it light and simple like these grandmas.
If a greeting begins with What, answer with one of these: Not much, Nothing, or Nothing much.
And remember to be polite and return the greeting by asking about the other person.
Now, let’s move on to real questions. Any of these greetings can be a real question.
Greetings vs. Real Questions
3 ways to tell the difference:
- body language and situation
- The tone of a real question is lower than the tone of a greeting.
- The speed of a real question is slower than the speed of a greeting.
- When someone asks a real question, their body language is open and focused on you.
- The situation is one where both people have some time to have a conversation.
When someone asks How are you? as a real question, you can give a real answer. Unlike in a greeting, if you are having a terrible day, you can say, Terrible. Here is how the conversation might flow when How are you? is asked as a real question:
A: How are you?
A: Oh, no. I’m sorry to hear that. What’s wrong?
B: I have a lot to do, and I’m not feeling well. I’m just totally overwhelmed with life right now.
A: That’s tough. I hope you feel better soon. Is there anything I can do to help?
B: No, thanks for asking though. I just need to get some rest and stop procrastinating.
A: Okay, well, good luck.
- The tone of a greeting is higher than the tone of a real question.
- The speed of a greeting is faster than the speed of a real question.
- When only greeting, people are often moving.
- Depending on the situation, people may be stopped, but have closed or tense body language. For example, they may be texting, talking with someone else, or busy with some other task.
- The situation is one where people are either on their way somewhere or are busy with something.
Next, we’ll talk about natural and common ways to say Goodbye.
FYI: Greetings earthlings! is not a common greeting unless you are an extraterrestrial visiting earth ;). I just used it for fun!
FYI: FYI means for your information. 🙂
Catch ya later!
Catch ya on the flip side!
Interested in knowing what “Catch you on the flip side!” means and where it came from?
Check out “A Way with Words,” a public radio conversation all about it! You’ll hear a natural conversation between the hosts and a caller. “A Way with Words” is full of podcasts about the English language, including lots of expressions you may have never heard. I especially recommended it for more advanced learners.
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