Thought Leadership

Everyday rhetoric

By Colin Walls

Although I am essentially a monoglot, I am interested in languages, which I have written about before. As I travel to countries where English is not the first choice, I do try to master just a little of the language. My starter is 6 words and one phrase: “Yes”, “No”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Hello”, “Goodbye” and “Please may I have a beer.”

The basic greetings are clearly the place to start, but I often find them confusing in English …

In many languages there is a formal greeting, like “Buongiorno!” in Italian. But there is often a simpler, more flexible, informal option like “Ciao!”, which can be used at almost any time. Similarly in Swedish they have “Hej!”, which may even be repeated – “Hej hej!” – with similar flexibility. German is a more formal language, so one might say “Guten Morgen”, but this might be abbreviated to “Morgen”, which I always think has a friendly ring to it. In certain areas they commonly say “Grüß Gott” – from which Google Translate gives us “Howdy God”, which made me smile.

This brings us on to English greetings. On arrival, we can say “Hello”, “Hi”, “Hey” or even “Howdy”. But we are just as likely to pose a question: “How are you?” or “How are you doing?”. These questions are rhetorical – they do not require a proper answer. Although I am often tempted to respond with one, as the practice of enquiring about someone’s health and not being prepared to listen to an answer seems silly to me.

The questions are becoming more obtuse. A common greeting is “What’s happening (man)?” I am mystified. Do they want to know about events right here and now? Are they enquiring about my life in general? Do they want a summary of today’s world news? Of course, I know that the answer is none of these – they do not want an answer at all.

In shops and fast food outlets, I am commonly greeted with “Y’alright there?”, which is an abbreviation for “Are you alright there?”. This is terminology that I would use if I saw somebody who appeared to be in distress. So, the first time that I was addressed this way, I assumed that I looked less than 100%. Of course, what they really mean is “Can I help you?” or “What do you want?”

A challenge for you: Next time you are in your favorite burger joint and are greeted with “Y’alright there?”, respond with “Yes thank you. I am absolutely fine. How are things going for you?” and see what response you get. Good luck with that.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at