UNDERSTANDING ENGLISH: PART 1
This little piece is perhaps most useful for those for whom English is not their mother tongue. English is in many respects an extremely handy language (especially in English-speaking countries), but there are myriad pitfalls for those of you who come to it from another language.
There is often a vast gulf in English between what is said and what is meant. For example, when a politician is running for office, no matter how grand and wonderful the election platform might be, what is actually meant is, "Once I'm in office I'm going to waddle up to the public trough and gorge myself senseless with your money, completely ignore whatever laughably unrealistic drivel I spouted in order to get elected, and generally treat all of my constituents who are not powerful and wealthy with a disdain I typically reserve for stray mounds of steaming dog feces."
But I do not mean to dwell on such issues today, for the difficulty in understanding the complexities of ethical politics (see oxymoron) requires the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, and the liver of Keith Richards.
Instead, let us focus on the little things, the small social noises that we make. To begin, here is one of the most misunderstood phrases in English: "How do you do?" (Depending on where you are and who is addressing you, this might also be: "How are you doing?", "How are you?", "How's it going?", "Howja do?", "How's she hangin'?", "Holy, g'day, how's she bootin' her, buddy?", "Yo! How's it shakin', my man?", and any other number of regional variations. Be on the lookout for the sense of this phrase.)
In truth, although this innocuous question seems to convey the interrogative, under no circumstances is an actual informative response required or desired. Frankly, we just don't care. The last thing that someone wants to hear after asking how you are, is how you are.
The correct response to this little 'question' is nothing at all. Say nothing. Nod your head, offer a little twitch of the mouth that might suggest a smile, but otherwise keep your yap shut. Of course, this technique is less effective on the telephone, so a little noncommittal "hmmm" is acceptable in this instance. (The one exception to this rule is a visit to the doctor's office or a trip to the emergency room, where an actual answer is needed in order that medical personnel might form an accurate diagnosis. Understand that they still don't care, as such, but that it will be difficult for them to proceed without some input from you, and that a vague "hmmm" might find you receiving an unanticipated barium enema or vasectomy.)
And then there's the possibility of having a little sport with the matter.
Think about it: You walk into a restaurant, you're eventually seated, you are introduced to every blasted employee in the place until finally your waiter appears. He then enquires with an obsequious smirk, "How are you folks this evening?".
If you want to impress your date, try this: Bolt from your chair, your face a mask of enraged incredulity, and with a spittle-spraying shriek in the face of the cretin retort, "How are we? How are we? We require nourishment! We came here for food to alleviate a hunger that threatens to consume us, you imbecile! Why else would we be here among your ferns and folk art and clever dessert suggestions? Why else would we suffer an endless parade of witless servers and wine stewards if we weren't here to eat? How are we? We are famished!"
See my point? This sort of whimsical approach also works in drugstores. As the hapless clerk (who doubtless toils long, thankless hours for minimum pay) ill-advisedly asks, "How are you today?", allow your eyebrows to slowly raise in disbelief as your gaze slides ponderously downwards to glare at the mountain of items that various of your ailments require. Pierce the poor unfortunate wage-slave with a look that would freeze nitrogen, and reply while slowly examining each of your purchases, "How am I? Let's see here I've got a headache. I'm iron-deficient. I've got chronic flatulence that would clear an army barracks. I've got the breath of a dyspeptic dragon and the body odour of one of the less-sanitary ogres. I'm incontinent, but only when it's horribly inconvenient. I suffer alternately from constipation and diarrhoea. I have the complexion of a gila monster's instep. I have hair that manages to be simultaneously dry and greasy. I suffer from so many allergies that I'm tempted to have myself placed in a bubble. I am incapable of either sleeping or waking without medication. I have fallen arches, tendinitis, degenerating discs, a deviated septum, a spastic colon, and for good measure there's a stand of dwarf maples growing in my pants! How am I? Not very well, thanks so awfully much for asking!"
So, we can now see both sides of this seemingly harmless enquiry into a stranger's state of being, can't we. English is a mighty sword. Use it wisely.
In our next instalment of 'Understanding English', we'll have a look at the most dangerous question ever posed: "Honey? Does this make me look fat?"