their New York struggle, part II: American pleasantries

Last month, we began a series exploring the initial impressions of Delhiites as they land in the US for the very first time.

That series was derailed a bit due to a sudden and wonderful addition to our family; fortunately, life has finally settled down enough for us to pick up where we left off.

As foreigners adjusting to life in a megacity, Jenny and I originally created this site to record the challenges we had adjusting to simple things about life in Delhi. You know, like power outlets with on-off switches or the fact that we had to monitor the water level in our rooftop tank in order to ensure a steady supply of showers.

So when we interviewed Tiya and Divya, two students who recently moved from Dehli to New York, we asked them to describe some of the things that initially confused them about their life in the New York. And Tiya had a very interesting response about Americans’ penchant for pointless pleasantries.

“The way people talk here. They ask how you’re doing without really caring about how you’re doing. And some are excessively polite and/or diplomatic, so, many times I find it difficult to discern what the person’s real intention is.”

She’s not alone. On our last post, many comments were posted about the same subject, exploring what Americans would consider politeness and non-Americans apparently consider insincerity.

Lakshmi said: “When I set foot at the Dulles airport in DC, the immigration/customs guy asked me how I was doing — and I was taken aback. Am I supposed to know this guy? Does this guy know my cousin? And so, is that how he knows that I would be here at the airport today? Did my cousin ask him to take care of me until he could pick me up at the airport? If so why didn’t my cousin tell me? I looked like a deer facing headlights.”

DyslexicHippo said: “I forced myself to quickly learn to say, ‘You are welcome’ in response to ‘Thank you’s.’ People rarely verbalized their thankfulness in India, but when they did you knew for sure that they meant it, and that those were not empty words. Here it was rude not to say “thank you”, but it meant nothing much at all when said.”

Sandhya said: “The way people smile at you in trains or streets… I would be halfway forming a smile in response but by that time they are already looking somewhere else… and I look like an idiot smiling at no one!!!”

Priyanka said: “I found it strange too that everyone from the cashier to the cab driver will ask you how you are; however, soon enough I realised that it wasn’t from the heart, so why ask???”

Judging from those comments, it would suggest that people in Delhi only present such queries when they genuinely care about the answer.

But I remember many times when friends and co-workers would begin a conversation with me by asking, “Have you eaten?”

I always took this as an Indian twist on the standard banal pleasantry, a conversation starter for which the actual state of my stomach was irrelevant.

But given what we’ve learned from Sandhya, Lakshmi , DsylexicHippo, and Tiya, should I have taken those questions more seriously? If I had said that I hadn’t eaten, would I have immediately been taken down to the canteen and present a bowl of dal?

24 responses to “their New York struggle, part II: American pleasantries

  1. Yes! Without a doubt! 😀 Indians can be very pushy when it comes to food. “Have some more, I insist.”

  2. Food is a serious business in India, if you have not eaten, it will be made sure that you do!!

  3. Well, people in India asking you if you’ve eaten is more with the intention of eating with you if you haven’t. To answer your question, if you would say you haven’t eaten, the response would be to drag you to the canteen and order two plates of daal and roti, or whatever it is that is available and eat together while you catch up. So it is very different from people saying “Sorry” or “Thank you” without discretion here in America.

    I struggled with this too, but after spending two years in Chicago, I have stopped acknowledging or even saying Sorry or Thank you when I don’t really mean it… especially the former; it made me feel that I should be apologetic for being alive!

    On a completely different note, I absolutely love your blogs!!! Haven’t been able to follow as diligently recently, but I can’t wait for the book!


  4. if you haven’t eaten, and i had asked you that question on the way to the canteen, i’d have offered you what my mom or wife had cooked. (not the whole thing of course, 😉 )

  5. “should I have taken those questions more seriously? ”
    And to think of all the meals you missed because of that one question !

  6. “How are you doing?” and “How are you?” are neither sincere nor insincere, they are just greetings, the American/western equivalent of “Namaste” and should be treated as such – much like people in north Indian villages say “Ram Ram” to everyone they pass in the street, whether casual acquaintance, absolute stranger or close friend. It’s part of the framework of humans interacting with each other, the exact form varies from country to country. Seriously, it’s nothing to get so worked up about.

  7. I grew up in America and I still hate the greeting “How are you doing?” or “How are you?”. There’s a good English phrase for that it’s called “Hello” and “Good afternoon/day/evening/night” Etc… The “How are you doing” in my opinion is a sign of declining fellow-felling in America. Those were not always greetings not that long ago. They actually required a real answer.

  8. i think that these things vary from person to person, and pleasantries are sometimes a part of your job . a good example will be me ; as a final year med student , i am quickly learning the importance of pleasantries in presenting a case and examining patients , even though i do not know the patient .
    the core thing is the idea that people are busy ,and everybody only thinks about him/herself , people are self centered , learn it .
    Also some jobs require these now incredibly mundane pleasantries to be exchanged . he/she is not doing it becoz he respects you or any thing , but it is just a part of his/her job .
    Making this an India / US thing is irrelevant , it is just the advent of modern times , one good example being the case of two sisters in noida suffering from depression , with one dying of starvation . one can argue that the neighbors did nothing , but they have a life of their own , just like us doctors cannot work 24 hrs a day for 7 days a week .
    what sandhya illustrates is an example of social exclusion , by smiling , the other person acknowledges your presence , but at the same time , he respects your privacy and refrains from making small talk to distract you .
    time is of essence , and people learn to value it
    in india privacy is not a big thing , with joint families and common rooms in hostels , compared to US
    now for something completely diffrent , i have seen children of all ages ( from day 0 ) and i can swear to god , i havnt seen a baby this cute , keep these photos coming…

  9. Yes. I assure you–you have missed many a grand meal because of that one question 🙂 After having been in the U.S. more than a couple of years, I have to agree with the responses above; I felt all this, and more, when I first got here. But there’s more to it, which I think I’ll write about in a post. Stay tuned.

  10. Nice to know about you guys. Stay safe. If you have a choice and can work from other place too, i suggest move to Mumbai. Anywhere in NorthWest or Central Mumbai. Its 10 times safer here. You can walk alone on the streets even in late night and there are lot of people around. I have been to Delhi. Everything closes down until 9 pm and feel deserted and unsafe. Particularly you may have noted the high crime rate in north india and particularly around delhi. I have lived in Mumbai .. then in NY and back in Mumbai now. I know I know Newyorkers are tough 😉 but i think lifes better and safer in Mumbai. I mean people dont bug Caucasians as they do in North India. they are more used to Caucasians i mean.

    Good luck anyways.

    no personal bias against delhiites.. love the feed there.

  11. “”Sharmishtha | April 21, 2011 at 11:54 am | Reply “How are you doing?” and “How are you?” are neither sincere nor insincere, they are just greetings, the American/western equivalent of “Namaste” and should be treated as such – much like people in north Indian villages say “Ram Ram” to everyone they pass in the street, whether casual acquaintance, absolute stranger or close friend. It’s part of the framework of humans interacting with each other, the exact form varies from country to country. Seriously, it’s nothing to get so worked up about.””

    exactly my thoughts..

  12. “have you eaten” is not Indian for ” how are you”.

    If someone has been asking you that, it’s a genuine question, like other genuine questions asked to you.

    But I gotta say, when people ask me how I am, I generally tend to tell them exactly how I feel, even if they’re strangers. Though I won’t tell them everything, I do respond with a ” oh! don’t ask” or something succinct but which clearly states that I’m not well ( if I’m in a bad mood), so they know how my state of mind is. I think it makes conversation easier.

  13. everyday life is different in east and west.when prosperity comes.people in west tend to take bigger houses but in india they continue to live in their ancestral house.

  14. Huh – this was an issue for my fellow Delhites in the US? In Delhi we do the same thing all the time, only in Hindi/ Punjabi… “Aur, kya haal hai?”-“Bas, first class” or “Hor Kiven!”-“Mast – tu das”.

    I didn’t really find it odd when I first got to the US… and it’s surprising how quickly you get used to the whole “how’s it going?”-“pretty good” thing. Even the Brit “All right?” is not too strange.

    Ps: great blog, btw

  15. You may call it a “pointless pleasantry”, whereas we call it “being polite”. I personally would take great offense to someone who failed to say “sorry” or “thank you” when appropriate. It would be rude. In Canada, it’s expected that if you say “thank you” to a person, they would reply, “You’re welcome.” In America, they often respond “Uh-huh” which drives Canadians nuts since we see that as horribly rude. Similarly, when we don’t hear a statement properly, we would say, “I’m sorry?” or “Pardon me?” or “Excuse me?”. Americans will say, “What?” which we also consider rude. I have no problem letting others know how rude they are when I am in my own country, but when I visit America, I bite my tongue. It’s their house after all.

  16. First, the American pleasantries of “How are you?” differ both in how they are asked and how they are responded to, depending on the region of the U.S. and the subculture.

    Second, because language and culture are fluid, these questions are often simply cultural greetings. However, it may be worth examining that these mini-pleasantries, also open a door, especially for those who are in need.

    For example, while working at a grocery store check out, I might see the same elderly woman a few times a week, all year long. Normally the conversation would be to ask how she is and she would say ‘good’ and we might make meaningless conversation about the weather. However, she might answer one day with “Not so good,” and explain about a health problem, or about an argument with a friend. This might seem inappropriate, but it functions as a mechanism to help us check on one another.

  17. Pingback: World’s Strangest | American Pleasantries

  18. I think tones and expressions are really the keys to understanding Americans. I work with tons of immigrants from many countries and so far it has not failed that people who are fresh from India do not grasp casual American sarcasm, or at least they think it’s mean. American sarcasm is often more playful than mean spirited, but either way, we use it all the time. I once spent months confusing the heck out of a colleague simply because I use sarcasm often at work to lighten things up a bit.

    Also, the words used will tell you if you’re getting a generic greeting or real question. People are more specific or at least use more words when they’re genuinely asking:
    “How’s it goin’?” or “sup?” or “what’s happening?” are generics greetings.
    “How have things been going at work?” or “How have things been going for you lately?” or “How did that meeting go?” are clearly meant to be answered.

    Unrelated response to previous commenter:
    On the American “uh-huh” or “mm-hmm” in response to a genuine “thank you”:
    –What it does NOT mean: “You’re right to thank me, but I’m too important/busy to acknowledge you.”
    –What it DOES mean: “I’ve only done what I should be expected to do. I politely recognize your thanks, but I don’t think I’m worthy of it.”
    or more simply:
    “Think nothing of it”

    Oddly, I’ve never liked “you’re welcome.” It feels awkward and almost selfish to me, as weird as that might sound… It’s as if I did the thing only to receive the thank you.

  19. “Oddly, I’ve never liked “you’re welcome.” It feels awkward and almost selfish to me, as weird as that might sound… It’s as if I did the thing only to receive the thank you.”

    I agree. You’re welcome sounds scripted and false to me. More often than not, I say “no problem”, or something similar. I would prefer to tell someone that assisting them (or whatever I did) was not a hardship and they need not feel they owe me anything.

    I HATE it when people ask me “how are you?” It’s not even a question, it’s a statement with an expected response of “fine, and you?”. Utterly meaningless. I almost never ask anyone that unless it is someone on I know or I really want to hear the answer.

  20. This actually amuses me quite a bit. My other half hates “How are you?” and routinely answers with “Terrible!”

    He does it do start an actual conversation and jar things out of the robotic How-are-you-fine call and response pattern. And it usually works. When we leave a grocery checkout or similar place, the person he’s been chatting with is usually genuinely smiling about the ridiculousness of the call-response greeting, and the fact that we’re expected to ask a question that it would be rude to give an actual answer to…

  21. Saying ‘no problem’ or suchlike in response to ‘thank you’ can also be a status thing (moreso in relations between men) – demonstrating that doing what you did was not difficult for you, therefore you rank above the person who needed you to do it for them.

    I always took the ‘uh-huh’ response to mean ‘yes I know you’re supposed to thank me for doing this service task, and I am supposed to respond, but this task is of so little worth/so unextraordinary that your thanks and hence my response are redundant pleasantries, however we will still engage in them so as not to appear rude’.

    I never liked ‘you’re welcome’ but got into the habit of using it just to not seem rude. It feels terribly insincere to me as a Brit, both saying it and hearing it.

    We use ‘how are you?’ here in the same way as a greeting and a social stroke with expected reciprocations, just like we talk about the weather. It oils the way into conversations and you gauge your response based on your relationship with the person. If it’s someone you know well you may respond with a truthful answer since you know they are actually interested in you. If it’s e.g. a receptionist in your hotel you just say ‘fine’.

  22. Mushtaq Patel

    hello can i get the email address of Mr. Dave its urget if anyone have please forward it to me

  23. I might end up as the worst person (Indian) in the comments sections as I would have asked you to go and eat something before we proceed instead of dragging you to a nearby canteen. I guess every country/culture has specific meanings to the words used daily and it would be difficult to place them in a sort of it-means-this-for-sure. Calling uncle/aunty in US might be offending, and uncles and aunties here would fall off their seats on being addressed as Mr./Mrs. XYZ

  24. Pingback: their New York struggle, part III: not-so-cheap labor | Our Delhi Struggle

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