Tag Archives: phatic communication

English Politeness vs Czech Honesty or hi-how-are-you-i’m-fine-thanks-how-are-you

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jak se mas

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How are you?

I know I’m asking but don’t go assuming that means I’m actually the least bit interested in the response. Apparently that’s because I’m English and for us, asking that innocuous question is just a way of clearing our throats. Often we don’t even bother to provide an answer before blurting out the same question parrot fashion. The French make things more convenient from this point of view; when you are asked ‘ça va?’ a simple ‘ça va’ will suffice in reply.

The Czechs do things differently. If someone bothers to go to the trouble of asking how you are, it is okay to assume they are interested in the response. You are allowed to say, “I’m feeling pretty shit actually” or go off on one about your bad boss, hair day or divorce. “Not great” is an acceptable answer here. In England, only “I’m fine” will do.

The linguists have a term for what we English do. It’s called phatic communication: language acts which have very little meaning or purpose other than to avoid silence. Perhaps the reason the Czechs I’ve spoken to about the ‘how are you?’ issue are confused about English ‘how-are-you-ing’ is that they misunderstand the true meaning of the standard response ‘I’m fine’. In fact, saying you’re fine doesn’t signify all that much, just that nothing terrible happened to you or your nearest and dearest that particular day, that you are alive, in reasonable health and not anticipating any imminent catastrophe. That’s all. You’re ok.

If you are feeling shitty and you’re speaking to someone English, my advice would be to keep a lid on it. Whatever you’re heard about the infiltration of U.S therapy culture, we still consider emotional incontinence bad manners. I only asked how you were, so don’t go spilling your guts everywhere: I don’t want to be subjected to a fifteen minute monologue.

I’m being deliberately provocative of course and I anticipate that you will agree or disagree with me as usual in the space provided.

I’m fine by the way. Really. Apart from having my mobile stolen on the 22 tram. No camera phone means no nice new pictures of bridges and mannequins and men eating sausages to put on my blog. But of course, I shouldn’t be telling you that as I’m sure you’re just asking out of politeness.

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