Greetings vs. Real Questions

greetingsHello!       안녕하세요!

Greetings earthlings!

Living and working in Korea, I’ve noticed some differences in the way Koreans greet people. 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.

For example, when Koreans greet me in English, they often ask, “Where are you going?” or “Have you eaten lunch?” Of course, I now understand that these are only greetings and not real questions, but my internal reaction is still very culturally based. When someone I don’t know well (or a total stranger) asks me “Where are you going?” I feel uncomfortable and like they want to know very personal information. It always feels like a real question to me, even though I know it’s just a greeting. Of course, it’s okay to ask this to people you know. However, 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 interpret it as a real question. Also, using the Korean framework, you should be careful asking this of someone with a “higher status” such as your boss or professor. It depends on the rapport you have whether or not the question is appropriate. Cross-cultural communication is difficult, isn’t it?!

What are some 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!

A: “Have you eaten?” is a polite and caring greeting in Korean. However, it is not a greeting in English.

B: What?! Are you serious?

A: Yes, I’m completely serious. 🙂

Until I learned that “Have you eaten?” was only a greeting, I was confused when Koreans would ask me if I had eaten. I thought they wanted to go to lunch with me or wanted to really 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. So remember, “Have you eaten?” does not translate to a polite greeting in English and can cause confusion.

It is no secret that Americans (and other “foreigners”) are very casual compared to Koreans. We don’t worry about age when speaking to people and we like to greet other people in a friendly and open way! In many parts of the United States, it is polite to acknowledge other people by saying “Hello” and making small talk. It is rude to ignore them in certain situations, including if you step into their personal space (which is 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. We’ll talk about that more a bit later as we need to keep the focus on greetings for now.

A: How are you today?

B: 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 (not so common between people who know each other when we speak English). 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? or Hey, how’s it going?  – (“Hey” is optional, but very common.)

B: Great, you? or Pretty good, and you? or Good, you? or 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 and you will 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? or What’s new? or What’s going on?

B: Not much, how ’bout you? or Nothing, you? or Nothing much, you?

Try to remember the difference. If a greeting begins with “How”, you can 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”, you can only answer it with “Not much” or “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. How do you know the difference?

There are 3 ways to know:

  1. tone
  2. speed
  3. body language and situation

If the question is said lower, slower, and with open relaxed body language in a situation where both people have time to have a conversation, it is a real question.

If it is said higher, faster, and with closed or tense body language in a situation where one or both people are on their way somewhere or are busy, it is a greeting.

Next, we’ll talk about natural and common ways to say “Goodbye.”

FYI: “Greetings earthlings!” is not an appropriate greeting unless you are an extraterrestrial visiting earth ;).

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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