When meeting acquaintances on the street or bumping into friends they may not be intimate with, British people struggle to decide what their first words should be – “how do you do” or “hello”.
Even though there are plenty of greetings that could be used, the Brits are pretty sensitive in choosing the words based on the situations at hand and who they are greeting.
In old English, there is a linguistic distinctness between the upper classes and the rest, and the way of greeting in the UK has followed this tradition.
“How do you do” and “hello” are the touchstones in the separation of the U from the non-U, that is, the separation between the social classes.
The U contingent had napkins, lavatories and greeted people with “how do you do”; the non-U had serviettes, toilets and greeted with “hello”.
The proper response to “how do you do?” was a reciprocal “how do you do?”, as seen in this exchange from Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, 1892:
Lord Darlington: “How do you do, Lady Windermere?”
Lady Windermere: “How do you do, Lord Darlington?”
However, before being used as a way of greeting, “how do you do” was the 16th century equivalent of our present day “how are you”. It specifically asks after someone's health and a reply is expected.
John Foxe, in his account of the persecutions of Protestants, The Book of Martyrs, 1563-87, recorded the first-known citation of a version of 'how do you do?' as an inquiry after someone's health:
“God be thanked for you, How do you?”
The change in usage from a query about health to a greeting was gradual. It was some time later, not until the 18th century in fact, that how do you do began to be widely used as a general greeting. Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela Or Virtue Rewarded, 1740 is an early example of that:
“O my good old Acquaintances, said I, I joy to see you ? How do you do Rachel? How do you all do?”
While such a historical heritance has fallen out of favour among the British people in recent years, as Kate Fox, the co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre, explains:
“The reason behind the decrease in use is because people think than the phrase is an archaic stuffy, sort of upper classy-type thing to say, despite that how do you do was being recognised as a fail-safe way of starting conversations with strangers.”
What choices are left for Brits who flounder without a set of phrases to use when meeting new people? The Guardian has proposed five-point guide to 21st-century greeting etiquette:
Handshakes need to be firm-ish and are best accompanied with good eye contact and a smile.
A hug to say hello is generally for close friends and family. Goodbye hugs are often given more liberally, especially if bonding or drinking has taken place. More ofthen businessmen can be found giving the Sopranos-style "hug'n'pat".
These are best left to the Americans.
The air kisses are slowly becoming more common in Britain, but can becomer very awkard if one party is nervous or unsuspecting. Two air kisses are standard, however older generations are often happy with one.
Variations of “how do you do” are diverse across Brtiain and can include “how do”, "All right?" and "Whatgwan?".
Generally speaking, Brits are quite reserved when greeting one another and a degree of formality is expected. Since there is no consensus on how to greet among the public, maybe it is time, as Kate Fox says, to go back and greet with “how do you do?”.
Header image: Flickr/Tadie88