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.
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.