Phrases don’t always carry the same meaning in every country. In Korea, I very nearly banned the phrase “nice to meet you” from my speech due to its constant improper use. “Nice to meet you” directly translated back to Korean more closely resembles the phrase “Nice to see you again”. Because of this translation error, I was greeted with “nice to meet you” by almost everyone I “met” on a daily basis. The confusion was humorous at first, but very quickly grew old. I found myself cringing when I was forced to use “nice to meet you” in its proper way, instead trying to at least replace “nice” with different adjectives.
Even the simple expression, “how are you?” carries slightly different connotations in different countries. “How are you” is most often treated more as a greeting in the US than a genuine inquiry to a person’s well being. Even so, how are you is not used at the beginning of every conversation and one might expect slightly different responses from person to person. In Germany and much of Europe “how are you” is only used when one really wants to know how a person is. If you ask how are you don’t be surprised to hear about how horrible someone’s day is with all the details. A simple “I’m fine” would only suffice if the person was truly fine. At first, I was a bit taken aback when I received what I deemed long winded responses to how are you, but later I learned to appreciate the honesty of people and how the question was taken literally. When someone asked me how I was, I knew they were genuinely interested in my well being, rather than just throwing out a standard greeting.
In the US how are you may be viewed as a greeting, but its frequency of use pales in comparison to Uganda. How are you in Uganda is the equivalent of hello. A standard conversation might run like this:
“Hello! How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“I’m very okay.”
Sometimes people are so zealous to answer the question that they don’t even wait for you to ask. “Hello. Fine. How are you?” Ugandans are some of the friendliest people I’ve met (particularly in all other regions of Uganda besides Karamoja) and probably are mostly interested in my well-being. However, I’ve about had my fill of how are yous. My daily walk from the office to lunch allows me to disclose my well being at least twenty times as I pass by a village full of young children. “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” At first the small children running up to greet me was cute. But my patience for repetition (and children in general) is rather limited and these days I find myself getting irritated with the rapid fire stream of greetings. My answer to how are you does not change in the one second between the first greeting and the second and more importantly seeing a mzungu walking past the village should cease to be a novelty, given that I walk the same way nearly every day. The only thing that prevents me from completely ignoring these greetings is the knowledge that I have some kind of image to present since no one here comes in contact with many mzungus. So every day I robotically respond “I’m fine. How are you?” a million times in a row as I briskly walk past to the peace and quiet of lunch.
Good thing they’re super cute or I my patience would be exhausted by now.