In the 8th Circle—Found among the papers of Dante Alighieri by Gabriel Lanyi SpecGram Vol CXCIII, No 1 Contents Mix & Match ※※—Max & Mitch Ninelette

How to Reply to Meaningless Conversational Openers:
Authenticity Without ImpolitenessA Linguistic Approach

Ian P. Lightness, N. Auden, T. Szitty

Astute and regular readers of SpecGram1 will remember a recent report on the banning of the ostensibly harmless conversation opener How are you? in three whole counties of the UK. The report ricocheted around the internet over four times, causing consternation, conversation, and chatter across five continents large swathes of the economy several mountainous regions two sub-sub-editors. While in the end the rest of the world did not follow the lead of Wildonshire, Detshire, and Shireshire, it was widely recognised that How are you? is about as useful as a dozen dirty dunghills in a final-year interactional phonetics exam. Pretty much everyonefrom transnational organisations through to village councils, from global trade federations through to Mrs Miggins the local bakerhad to think through what was meant by How are you?, whether the question was fair and appropriate, and what, if anything, constituted a response, or set of responses, to it.

Academia, bright and brash as ever, was among the first to think through the ramifications of the anti-How-are-you-?-ist agenda, and, as is typical with ever-vivacious, bureaucratically-slimline academia, the overall response was swift, economical, nimble, far-sighted, intelligent, and to the point. In lieu of banning How are you?,a move seen as too radical in the free-thought environment for which academia strivesmany universities have opted for a middle-way approach to negotiating the murky waters of this element of meaningless phatic talk: drawing up lists of departmentally-themed appropriate responses which, while recognising the semantic vacuity of the phrase, furnish replicants2 with a Dean-approved list of exponents so as to enable conversation to continue in some form and not lead to the collapse of the scientific and intellectual enterprises as a result of people refusing to acknowledge each other.3

Philosophy departments, unsurprisingly, led the way, meaninglessness being their specialty on a number of levels. This set the standard and it is worth giving a flavour of the reports that some of the world’s leading philosophers came up with to the annoyance that is How are you?. Here are a few.

This creative response to the dangers of being asked How are you? in a university context was swiftly taken up by many other disciplines. Economists would respond “Bankrupt!”; mathematicians would offer “As together as any positive integer divided by zero”; the lit guys would proffer “To be or not to be”; and theologians would tend to just start praying. However, surprisingly, linguistics departments were slow to take up the challenge; linguists after all have many, many important things to be doing. So, as ever the faithful retainer of linguistics, the Sancho Panza to the discipline’s Don Quijote, SpecGram has therefore decided to offer a number of possible linguistically-themed responses to the dangerous, difficult, and downright dastardly “conversational” opener How are you?

Old English

Middle English

Shakespearean English

Historical Linguistics

Comparative Linguistics

L1 Acquisition







Cognitive Linguistics

Animal Communication

Computational Linguistics

Corpus Linguistics

1 Do we have readers who are both astute and regular? If not, “one or two readers may remember...”

2 That is, both “people who reply” and Roy Batty.

3 At least not for reasons of conversational embarrassment.

In the 8th CircleFound among the papers of Dante Alighieri by Gabriel Lanyi
Mix & Match ※※Max & Mitch Ninelette
SpecGram Vol CXCIII, No 1 Contents