Discourse function of “How are you?”

A bit further to my post on the XKCD comic, I’ve been spending time recently in class on the discourse function of “How are you?”. While it may seem like a small and basic point I think it actually gets to the heart of what an SFL approach to teaching can bring to the classroom. Because very few students can answer the question appropriately. The most common responses I get are: “I’m tired/sleepy”, “I’m happy/hungry” (from kids), “Today is busy”, “Not good” (with no explanation) through to the always charming “I have diarrhea”. What’s going on here?

I think part of the problem is the result of a traditional approach to teaching that emphasises grammatical forms over everything else. The responses above are grammatically correct and, as one student told me, that’s what they were taught in their very first English lesson in Junior High School – focus on the verb ‘to be’. This, however, entirely misses the point of the question “How are you?”.

The question is not concerned with the Ideational content of its lexico-grammar – I’m not really concerned with the current state of your physical condition – but in fact operates at the strata above. At the context level it serves to both establish and reinforce interpersonal relationships and power structures in an indirect way. Slight variations in turn-taking, lexical, phonological selections are used for “constructing and signalling degrees of solidarity and intimacy in relationships” (Eggins & Slade, 1997:117). If we compare, for example, “Good morning. Now young lady, how are
you today?” spoken by a doctor in a consultation with “Hallo Stewie, how are you mate!” in casual conversation (both examples from BNC) we can see these differences quite clearly.

Also on a generic level the question plays an important role. Here, it functions as an opening, or way in, to the conversation. Even in a medical examination, where we might expect a focus on Ideational content, it in fact functions as an Opening stage before the Examination stage. Here is an extended conversation from the BNC:

(Doctor) Good morning, good morning.
(patient) Good morrow.
(Doctor) How are you today?
(Patient) I’m fine. How are you?
(Doctor) I’m alive. Causing trouble.
(Patient) (laugh) I suppose you’re ahead of the game if you’re alive.
(Doctor) Yes. That’s it. Now then young man, what can we do for you today?

Note here that it is the Doctor who opens the conversation and also the Doctor who makes a little joke, both of which establish the Doctor as the participant with higher power and authority yet also reinforce the (possibly) on-going nature of the Doctor-Patient relationship.

In a slightly different form, “How are you?” is also an important generic component of letters, as this example from the BNC shows:

Dear Laura, I hope you are well, we’re
all fine. Are you enjoying school?

There is a cultural difference to this. Japanese correspondence, even highly formal, will insert a digression on the weather that serves a similar opening function.

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About eflfunc

I'm an EFL teacher in Japan and this is a blog to record some thoughts on using Systemic Functional Linguistics in the foreign language classroom.
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