You don’t have to feel good to say “I’m good”

Haoqiu Zhang

I arrived in Montreal in late August this year. Looking back on what has happened in the last three months here, I see lots of first-times in my life. Many things for me need to be learned from scratch, which I was mentally ready before I came. But one thing I didn’t imagine was the fact that I found I needed to learn how to greet people.

I know this is a cliché story. Every time asked “how are you”, a Chinese will be triggered to reply “Fine. Thank you. And you?” and expect you to say “I’m fine too”. This classic dialogue is what most we Chinese students learn in our first English class and, through repeated reading and reviewing for the whole semester, all students can learn this typical dialogue by heart. As we go to higher level of English learning, we know it’s not authentic and most foreigners do not say that, but we just can’t help. The dialogue seems to have been programmed and proceduralized into our brains. Before I came here, a friend of mine who had studied for one year in France gave me a tip: if you can’t resist replying “fine, thank you, and you”, you can ask people first, then you don’t have the worry. Of course, I’ll just take her advice as a joke.

Having been in Montreal for three months and bombarded with people asking “how are you”, I am still hesitating to reply. I tried to observe how most people greet and I noticed that in here, every time asked “how are you”, people seemed to be triggered to answer “good, how are you” and expected a response like “good”. Very simple, straight and quick. It moves people ahead into conversation if they are acquainted with each other, or it becomes a way of showing politeness and friendliness if people are not familiar with or strange to each other, just like “hi”. Having got some clues about the “rule” in greeting, I thought it would no longer be a problem to reply “how are you” in greetings. Just tell them that I’m good. How difficult could that be?

But the truth is this simple greeting was still not easy for me. It happened that when I ran into a classmate along the corridor or in a washroom and when I was asked “how are you”, I hesitated for about one or two seconds to give the answer “good”! I asked myself what I was thinking during the hesitated two seconds and I guess I was thinking “I’m not feeling so good because I’m stressed about the due assignments or I’m upset about some trivial stuff in my life.” Then I had to tell myself: don’t think too much; it’s just a greeting used when two busy people pass by, simply like saying hello. You don’t need to feel like you are lying about your feelings if you take “I’m good” as a response to show and pass on positive energy. People all have things upsetting them, but it’s not a good choice to pour negative emotions to everybody you see.

Now I say “I’m good” more and more naturally. I know there are many other ways to reply to “how are you”. There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question, but “good” is a typical, positive answer, and I believe it’s a good starting point in communication or interaction.

Question

I want to say that there is always a distance between knowing and using for second language learners, especially in oral production. I’m wondering if there is anything we can do in classrooms to help learners overcome the barriers? Feel free to share your ideas.

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3 thoughts on “You don’t have to feel good to say “I’m good””

  1. Dear, Haoqiu:
    First of all, thank you so much for sharing your feelings and thoughts with us. I have the same feeling, to be honest, being alone in a different country and having to take care of everything all by myself, I guess it’s not easy for us all. My strategy is keeping on telling myself “You have done a great job, you deserve a big smile.” It works for me, hope we all can adapt to the life here as soon as possible.
    As for the experiences you mentioned about the greeting way in English, as a Chinese, I am also confused, or to say frustrated sometimes for not saying the right word I truly want to say. I guess as you have said because we were taught to reply like this for almost more than 10 years of English education. We can not change all at once, it’s impossible. But I think it’s nothing wrong, nothing to be embarrassed. We are who we are, like everyone who has an accent. As ESL learners, everyone’s English is highly influenced by the grammar, expression habit and construction way of their mother tongue. This phenomenon can not be avoided but can be improved through training and practice. I have a few suggestions: 1. The textbook or the teaching materials at home need to be re-edited, the content should be more authentic to the real conversation happened between native English speakers, providing a more pragmatic usage and common words instead of formal and complicated expression. 2. The ESL teachers should take the responsibility of changing the traditional way of instructing. This has been a big problem in traditional ESL class in China. Both the students and the teachers are suffering a lot from the pressure of the exams. The students need a good grade in the exam so the teachers have to bombard the students with as many words, phrases and sentences as possible while forgetting the real aim of learning a language, which is mastering the skill of communicating with that language. So the ESL teachers should try to create a lively and vivid atmosphere for the students so they can immerse themselves in a real English world and cultivate the habit of thinking in English.
    I can only think of these two strategies that can solve the problems you mentioned, but I am sure there are other reasons and coping strategies as well.
    Hope what I said is useful.

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  2. Thank you, Haoqiu, for sharing your experience. I don’t think there is one single or simple answer to your question of how to help learners overcome barriers, but rather a combination of things. A couple were pointed out above (changing/ updating textbooks; and changing pedagogical approaches). The frustration you have felt with greetings is not uncommon. When we learn a language, we do so in a particular context. When we move to a new context, some (many?) of those rules are going to be different. I don’t mean grammar rules, so much as rules of use. As someone who studied French for many years in Ontario, I still struggle to find my words here in Montreal. I have so many words in my head, but I’m not sure which ones fit in which situation. And so, we keep on learning. Can a language class give learners everything they need in terms of language skills? I don’t think so, because what life will demand outside the class will be different, depending on where we are, who we’re interacting with, and what we’re doing. But, I do think that language teachers can help their learners develop 1) strategies for dealing with types of communications they might encounter outside the class; and 2) an attitude towards language use that encourages a certain level of acceptance of ambiguity (in other words, things are never really as simple as our grammar rule books make them seem).
    ~Alison

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  3. Yu-Ting, Liu

    Hi Haoqiu!

    I like your title! It’s so true that I face the same problem about greeting to westerners. I’ve never realized greetings are not a thing to English speakers (Like how are you?). I remember when I was in Korea, there were many foreigners. That was the first I had to greet people with “How are you?” or “How’s it going?”. I wasn’t bothered until I got asked the same, and I replied with an “actual” answer. The friend said: “Really? But good luck with it!” I was so confused with the reply and thought are we not close enough to care about my recent status? Then my other American friends told me that they don’t really care about the answer when greeting “How are you?” And they said:”Just say GOOD whenever you hear HOW ARE YOU?” It’s just a way to greet, and like you said, it’s programmed into their head. They were honest to tell me that they wouldn’t stop for an unfamiliar friend saying “No, not really good.” And usually people don’t reply negative answers to friends who are not close enough either. Maybe it’s different from country to country, but that’s what I experienced so far!

    I agree with you, sometimes I feel like I’m lying to people because I’m not telling the truth to people who greet me with a big smile. In fact, I’m still not used to the greeting culture, I will hesitate for one second and say GOOD. I think culture has a big power than enables people to live with a certain lifestyle. Greeting is something I need to spend more time to to get over with.

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