Here’s one way to be annoying. When a stranger asks, “How are you?” reply honestly. Say, “Well, I’ve got this rash that’s been bugging me, and I’m exhausted because I couldn’t fall asleep until three a.m. last night, and honestly between the dead-end job and the loveless marriage I’m not sure my life is turning out the way I’d hoped.” This is such an obvious joke that no one besides hack comics bother to make it. Linguists call expressions like “How are you?” phatic speech. On the surface, phatic utterances appear to be information-transmitting, but what they really are is acknowledgements of another human being’s presence, a smile put into words. It’s useful to have the technical term “phatic” as distinct from the broader concept of smalltalk since smalltalk, though also formulaic, still may result in someone learning something. Think of phatic speech as the distilled essence of smalltalk, in which the fact that I don’t actually care how you are or if it is hot enough for you is part of the fundamental decency of our exchange.
Sometimes someone straining to be clever will say, “I wish people wouldn’t ask how you are when they clearly don’t care about the answer. It’s dishonest.” Think of this as the curmudgeonly corollary to the hack joke above. The illusion of dishonesty stems from an unspoken convention that when someone asks a question they expect to receive an answer, a convention1 which phatic questions violate. This violation is only apparent, however, because phatic “How are you?” is not actually a question. It is a question-shaped string of words that has been repurposed as a ritual gesture of politeness.
Maybe you understand this, but still can’t stand it when the poor supermarket checkout clerk just trying to be nice “pretends” to ask a question. What do you suggest as an alternative? We could ban the interrogative from all phatic speech. This would be easy, since most phatic speech takes the form of declarative statements. Instead of “How are you?” we could require that everyone say “Nice day” or “Good morning” or what have you. Maybe that would satisfy the question-form pedants, but then some other smart-ass would come along and say, “It most certainly is not a good morning!” and we’re back to where we started.
How does one idiot-proof phatic speech? How does one say something without saying anything? Just when think you have smoothed a rote expression down to perfect vacuousness, an overlooked snag of connotation trips you up. The only solution is to make the expression call attention to its ritual nature, thereby aligning the literal and pragmatic meanings. My old yoga teacher used to close each class by putting her hands together in prayer position, giving a gentle beatific nod and saying, “The divine in me recognizes the divine in you.” This is what our phatic utterances actually mean, but can you imagine being obliged to repeat such New Age treacle to the guy across the counter every time you wanted to buy a goddam cup of coffee? Perhaps we could just replace all phatic expressions with the word “Acknowledge”. When you first see a person you would say, “Acknowledge” they would say “Acknowledge” back, and then you’d proceed with the actual conversation. You could imagine a clever fourteen year-old boy having just such an insight and amusing himself by saying “Acknowledge” to everyone he met in a robotic monotone until he realized, as we all someday must, that the cleverest thing of all is to be liked.
Try and banish it, and connotation will reinsinuate itself, like kudzu in a garden. This isn’t a flaw in natural language, but a defining characteristic that gives it an expressive power that other communication systems–semaphore, computer code, mathematics–do not possess. That its tiniest nooks and crannies may be exploited for social purposes makes language endlessly useful to social mammals like ourselves. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein describes communication as a “language game”, and its game-like nature is particularly apparent in phatic exchanges. So when someone says “How are you?” you know what to do. Be nice. Play along.
1 This isn’t a Gricean Maxim, but it should be.