Alternative Ways To Ask “How Are You?”

We often ask “How are you?” without even thinking. It just automatically follows “Hello” or whatever greeting we have chosen to open with. This is not a new habit. In the 1300s, we started asking each other “how do,” while adding a pronoun or name. This continued through the 16th and 17th centuries:

  • How do ye to day?
  • How doth my lady?
  • How dost thou?

Of course, these are archaic ways of addressing each other, which include the pronouns ye and thou. Later, “How do you do?” became common, although today we associate it more with formal introductions. For a casual greeting, you can choose the word it mutated into: howdy (or one of its synonyms).

Just as the questions trip off the tongue without thinking, our answers tend to be automatic too: I’m fine. Not too bad. Sometimes we’ll go with tired.

But when times are tough all over, this autopilot exchange seems inappropriate. Chances are, your friend may not be fine. They could be struggling with health, financial, or family problems. They could be exhausted (or bone-weary, shot, limp) and barely keeping it together.

As a friend, you genuinely want to find out how they are. You want to offer a sympathetic ear and help them, if you can. “How are you?” is a bit of a conversational dead-end. What you really need is something to keep the communication going and flag that you are ready for some real talk.

To this end, here are some alternatives to asking, “How are you?” that will get you an authentic answer and help your friends open up to you.

Ask about feelings

Sometimes the simplest approach can be the best. Just be straightforward and ask how they are feeling. It’s less vague than “How are you?” and shows right away that you are ready to hear about emotions.

  • How are you feeling today?
  • What emotions are coming up for you lately?
  • How are you coping at the moment?

The word cope, in the modern sense “to face and deal with responsibilities, problems, or difficulties successfully” dates back to the mid-1930s. However, it comes from the Middle English coupen (“to clash, deliver blows, engage in combat”). This derives from the Latin colaphus (“a blow with the fist, a smack on the ear”).

At a time when people are facing difficult circumstances all over the globe, perhaps engaging in combat and smacking ears is a more accurate term for how we are having to confront things!

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Start with the present

Our feelings in general on any given day can be a lot to explain in a sentence. Start by asking about your friend’s physical situation and the present moment. These questions can be easier to answer and ease you both into the conversation.

The answers can also start to give an insight into how the other person is feeling. You can pick up on this and ask follow-up questions to go a little deeper.

  • How did you sleep?
  • What did I interrupt?
  • What did you have for lunch?

Interestingly, in many East Asian languages, asking “Have you eaten yet?” is used in the same way that English speakers use “How are you?” Rather than a request for a list of the food you have consumed, both phrases are an example of phatic communication. This refers to spoken language that is “used to create an atmosphere of shared feelings and sociability.” Coined by Bronislaw Malinowski in 1923, it is probably derived from the Greek phatós (“spoken”).

Be specific

Ask about something that is specific to this person. Even if it’s been a while since you last spoke, follow up on something you previously talked about. It could be a heavy emotional situation or something mundane, routine, or day-to-day. Either way, it lets your friend know you are thinking about them and care about their life.

  • How are you getting on with the new phone?
  • Is your brother out of the hospital yet?
  • Where is that beach in your new profile picture?

Be the first to share

You don’t want to make the conversation all about you, but sometimes it helps if you open up first. This shows you are receptive or friendly, and ready to be honest. It also helps people feel like they are less alone, if they relate to what you are sharing. Try to turn the discussion around to the other person when you can.

  • Is it just me, or is it hard to get to sleep at the moment?
  • I’m feeling frustrated today, how about you?
  • Are you as anxious as I am?

First used in English in the 1600s, anxious comes from the Latin anxius. This older word carried the meaning we would recognize today: “worried, distressed.” However, anxious is derived from angere, which originally meant “to choke or strangle.” That’s feeling a lot of us can relate to right now!

Accentuate the positive

Just like sports, conversations can benefit from a warm-up. Ask your friend about the positives in their life first. Once you get some flow going, you can more easily ask about heavier issues.

Sharing feelings about the good things in life may give your friend the confidence to unburden themselves of any stresses and worries, too.

  • What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?
  • What did you manage to get done this morning?
  • How has your family helped you this week?

Spoken vs. written questions

It’s a lot easier to have a sensitive and honest conversation in person or over the phone. If you are writing an email or a letter, some of these strategies might not be so fruitful. It takes more time and mental energy to type out your worries, and we all know how tricky it can be to convey emotions via text.

With typed communication, it might be best to stick to a straightforward “How are you feeling today?” Follow it up with some good wishes and maybe a confession of your own. Depending on their answer, today might be the perfect time to pick up the phone and get chatting.

Whichever approach you decide upon, your friend should get the message that you care about them and that they can rely on you. During turbulent times, the best thing we can do is take care of each other.


When your friend has opened up to you, one thing you can do is thank them for trusting you. Thankfully, we have a broad list of worldly ways to say “Thank you.” 

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