“How are you?”
This question is the start of so many English conversations and also a source of confusion for just as many English language learners.
We would know, because our students often ask us, “What’s the correct response to ‘How are you’?” after they realize that the standard response they learned in class (“I’m fine, thank you. And you?”) isn’t actually that common in real life.
On the bright side, there’s no one way to respond to this question. If you’re not feeling well, you can say “I’m feeling under the weather.” And if you’re doing great, feel free to just say that!
But if you really have nothing to say about your current condition, we’ll show you some popular English phrases that people use to respond to “How are you?” as well as some ways to make them more interesting so you can start your next conversation in English on the right foot.
Option 1: “Hi. How are you?”
Surprisingly, a lot of people simply reply to “Hi. How are you?” with another “Hi. How are you?” For example, in the following video, an American man starts conversations with 10 of his friends in Los Angeles and finds that most of them reply “Hi. How are you?” or some variation of it.
Unless you’re talking to a friend, “How are you?” is often just a way to greet someone. Think of it as a more elaborate “Hello.”
Option 2: “I’m Fine.”
Believe it or not, your English courses weren’t wrong when they taught you to say “I’m fine.” Neutral responses like “I’m fine” are, without question, one of the most popular responses to “How are you?”
As a linguistics scholar explains, “Even though it looks like the person is asking an open-ended question, we treat it as a closed-ended question, in which ‘good’ or ‘fine’ is all that is … expected.”
An American anthropologist once remarked that even people in hospitals who were suffering from serious diseases would say they were fine in conversation.
So “I’m fine” is a good, default response. Unlike positive or negative responses (“I’m doing great!” or “I’m not OK.”), neutral responses like this serve two purposes:
- They spare the listener from feeling a need to be emotionally invested in you.
- They spare you from having to disclose too much about your life.
Below are some more popular English phrases that people use instead of “I’m fine.”
I’m good / well.
Some people say that “I’m well” is the proper way to respond to “How are you?” while others insist that “I’m good” is grammatically correct.
The truth is both “I’m good” and “I’m well” are fine and commonly used in conversation. As the Chicago Manual of Style explains, “‘I’m good’ is the currently popular slang reply, and ‘I’m well’ is the formal reply.”
- I’m good, thanks.
- I’m well. How are you?
I’m OK / alright.
If you fall down, someone will probably ask you, “Are you OK?” or “Are you alright?” If you’re not hurt, your response would be “I’m OK / alright.” That’s the general idea behind “OK” and “alright.”
Here’s an example of a conversation where one of the speakers says, “I’m alright, thank you.”
I’m doing well / OK / alright / fine.
You can also use the phrase “I’m doing …” with an adverb to say how you are. The most common adverbs are “well,” “OK,” “alright,” and “fine.”
Not (too) bad.
Another way to say you’re OK is to say that you’re “not bad” or “not too bad.” This phrase is often accompanied by an expression like this:
“Not too shabby” is an even more informal way to say “not bad.” For example, “Not too shabby. What about you?”
Another way to say “not too bad” is “can’t complain.” After all, if your life isn’t too bad, you can’t really complain about it! For example:
- Not too bad. Can’t complain. You?
- Can’t complain. What’s going on with you?
- Can’t complain. Could always be worse! How about you?
“Pretty good” is another way to say “not too bad,” though it’s on the positive side.
- Pretty good. What about you?
- Pretty good, thanks.
Same old, same old.
If your life has not changed much, it’s the “same old” life. If asked “How are you?” you could respond:
- Same old, same old. You?
- Oh you know, same old same old. Still busy with work and stuff.
Option 3: Add a Little Detail
If you don’t want to sound too indifferent when responding to “How are you?”, but also don’t want to make the conversation longer than it has to be, expand on the neutral responses above with a little detail.
Add a little detail with “just”
You can add some detail using the word “just.” For example:
- I’m good. Just had a big lunch and feeling a little sleepy.
- I’m alright. Just kinda tired. What about you?
- Not too bad. Just having a chill day.
Add a negative detail with a positive twist
As Merriam-Websters puts it, when asked “How are you?,” people “tend to downplay anything bad.” So when they do share something a little negative, they’ll often add a positive twist at the end. After all, it’s common to share bad news before good news in English.
- I’m alright. I’m not doing too well, but I’m hanging in there.
- Not too bad. I’ve been down with a cold for a week, but I’m getting better!
Add a funny detail.
If the situation you’re in allows you to be funny, you can take “How are you?” as an opportunity to make a joke about your life. Might as well start off the conversation on a light note!
- Oh you know, same old same old. Still doing the same job and hating every minute of it.
- Can’t complain. My laptop died just as I was about to submit a paper and then my bike was stolen, but hey, at least I didn’t get run over by a car!
Go Start a Conversation!
Now that you know how to start a conversation in English, go out and have some!
And if you need practice having conversations or are just looking for helpful language learning tips, feel free to reach out to one of our tutors. Your first lesson is free!