'Alright' in Blighty: Culturally revealing greetings
This post was inspired by a pub conversation with Colette Berbesque – an American anthropologist living in London who helped me dissect the term.
Greetings are a topic that most of us don’t give much thought to – until, that is, we travel or live overseas. For example, in South Korea, a common greeting is Bap meogeosseoyo? (밥 먹었어요1), which means ‘Have you eaten yet?’ (literally: ‘Have you eaten rice yet?’). When I was doing fieldwork there in the late 1990s, the first few times I heard the greeting, I wrongly assumed it was a literal question. On those occasions when I responded honestly that I hadn’t eaten yet, it soon became apparent that I had committed a cultural faux pas – at least, based on the expressions of bewilderment and surprise that accompanied my reply, and the speedy efforts to procure food for me.2
As Hallie Bradley of the Soul in Seoul blog notes of her own confusion regarding the salutation,
My Korean conversation partners were obviously expecting me to say, ‘yes, I’ve eaten’ and move on but I threw them a curve ball and said, ‘no’. It was like replying with, ‘Oh, I’m terrible. I just failed a test and then got side swiped by a car in the parking lot and now I’m late for this meeting…’ and so on and so on to an acquaintance who was just being polite in asking how you were as you sat in a lobby together.
Bradley’s comment suggests that ‘Have you eaten yet?’ is basically equivalent to ‘How are you?’ because it requires a standardised rather than honest response. Indeed, this is a core feature of greetings as a distinct category of speech.3
According to the linguistic anthropologist Alessandro Duranti, greetings have six universal features. First, and most obviously, they happen at the beginning of a social interaction. They also establish a shared perceptual field – greetings generally start with visual contact between two or more parties. Third, they come in what’s called ‘adjacency pairs’: one party speaks and the other party immediately responds in a back-and-forth fashion. They are also relatively predictable in form and content; there’s a standardised and ritualised element to them.
Fifth, they are a discrete unit of interaction – what the conversational analyst Harvey Sacks calls a ‘minimal proper conversation’. In other words, while they might initiate a conversation, greetings are also a conversation in their own right (albeit a short one) – as in two people passing each other in a corridor and saying ‘hi’. Finally, and most importantly, they identify the person being greeted as a distinct being worth recognising.
The fact is that we make choices all the time about who to greet and who not to greet. For example, at least in western contexts, most of us don’t greet other occupants when entering a public toilet, precisely because this is not an environs where we desire to be recognised (or recognise others) as distinct beings – even when they are acquaintances rather than strangers.4 Likewise, when passing colleagues in the corridor, we make decisions about who to say hello to, often pretending we haven’t seen the local Debbie Downer, Chatty Cathy or Billy Braggart, to avoid the risk of getting sucked into a conversation with them.
This brings us to the most interesting feature of greetings: the fact that they require constant dissembling. To quote Sacks, when it comes to greetings, ‘everyone has to lie’. As he observes, greetings require constant information regulation. For example, most of us would respond very differently (well, one hopes) to ‘How are you?’ when asked by a colleague, a physician, or a close friend – the same is true for its Korean counterpart ‘Have you eaten yet?’ when asked by your boss versus your mum.
Even then, you would need to lie at least some of the time, because an honest answer would potentially mean that the other party is given information they have no business knowing. Of course, we all know people who are particularly bad at the sort of information regulation that most of us take for granted,5 but these tend to be exceptions that prove the rule.
The fact is that seemingly innocuous expressions like ‘How are you?’ and its cross-cultural counterparts are a social minefield for the uninitiated. For example, although three standard responses to the former greeting are possible: positive, neutral and negative, realistically speaking, anything except a neutral response evokes what Sacks calls a ‘diagnostic sequence’.6
Imagine that someone asks ‘How are you?’ and you honestly respond ‘lousy’. Politeness dictates that the greeter must inquire about why you feel lousy, leading you both deeper and deeper into dangerous territory – unless, of course, you start to obfuscate the truth. As Sacks notes, at some point, everybody has to lie.7 This is one of the reasons why ‘okay’, and its slightly more ebullient sibling, ‘fine’, are often our go-to responses: their beauty lies in their supreme vagueness.
Yet, although I have a good theoretical grasp of these dimensions of greetings, I was still completely thrown when I moved to the UK and was hailed with ‘Alright?’ for the first time. ‘Alright?’ or ‘Y’Alright?’ (short for ‘Are you alright?’) is a standard salutation in England. Although it’s basically the equivalent of ‘How do you do?’ – the older and more formal greeting that it has effectively replaced – when I initially heard it, I was completely stumped on how to respond. My instinctive reply of ‘Um, I think so?’ clearly wasn’t appropriate, based on the puzzled looks I received.
The proper response, I have since learned, is ‘Alright’. In other words, you basically just repeat the word back to the other person as a statement rather than a question, as in:
Person A: ‘Alright?’ Person B: ‘Alright’.
In this respect, it echoes the rules the anthropologist Kate Fox outlines in Watching the English for ‘How do you do?’ as an all-purpose greeting, where the correct response is simply to repeat back ‘How do you do?’, ‘like an echo or a well-trained parrot’.
If you’re feeling especially chatty, you might follow up with ‘You?’, leading to the triple ‘alright’ scenario. Not to be confused with Matthew McConaughey’s catchphrase in Dazed and Confused, this version of the triple-alright is basically as follows:
Person A: ‘Alright?’ Person B: ‘Alright. You?’ Person A: ‘Alright’.
Those of us unfamiliar with the greeting are used to hearing these words when the person being asked the question is very clearly not okay. After all, this is an expression that is typically prefaced with ‘Oh my god!’ (cried in appalled tones), and is generally used after someone has had a near miss or is recovering from some sort of injury or shock. For example, they might have just been hit by a golf ball or a car, or they’ve got a nosebleed, or their arm is in a sling, or they’ve just fallen flat on their face, or their grandmother has just died, and so on.
It’s therefore somewhat disconcerting to be presented with a cheery ‘Alright?’ by a colleague when you arrive at work. ‘Why is he asking me that?’, you think to yourself; ‘Do I not look alright?’ Of course, it’s just as meaningless as any other greeting – no one actually wants to know if you are alright, but I nevertheless think the choice of words is revealing.
That the English would collectively use this as a casual greeting smacks to me of the sort of chronic pessimism that Fox has discussed at length in Watching the English – what she defines as an ‘Eeoyorish’ cultural temperament that assumes that it’s in the nature of things to go wrong. However, as used in the English context, it’s more of a statement than a question: a pronouncement that the other person is alright – and that you certainly don’t want to hear any different if the case is otherwise!
This is why the acceptable response to the greeting is a reciprocal ‘alright’ rather than some other rejoinder: the greeting is framed in such a way that it effectively answers the question ostensibly being asked. This is not the context for revealing that you’re most definitely not alright, or, even worse, an effusive elaboration of how marvellously you’re doing. Americans might get away with ‘I’m doing great!’, but responding in such a fashion in England is likely to raise as many eyebrows as a negative reply.
That ‘alright’ has become a standard greeting is hardly a coincidence. Exceeding even ‘okay’ in its blandness and lack of commitment to any particular emotional state,8 it arguably epitomises several rules of Englishness described by Fox, including the ‘Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule’ and the ‘Irony and Understatement Rules’. Indeed, I can’t think of any term that better articulates the sort of impassive, undemonstrative, understated demeanour that is perceived to characterise the ideal English character.
Thus, while greetings might seem like meaningless platitudes, even the most bland salutations reveal something significant about a culture’s core values. In England, these values are reinforced millions of times a day as people across the land hail each other with a chorus of ‘Alrights’, simultaneously reminding and reassuring each other that they are, in fact, alright – kind of like a ‘Keep calm and carry on’ poster distilled into greeting form. And while ‘Come and visit England; it’s alright’ is probably not an ideal tourism slogan (unlike ‘G’day’, which was used to great success by Tourism Australia in the 1980s), the English presumably wouldn’t want it any other way. Alright?
1 Did I put this in to show off? You betcha. Anthropologists do this all the time as a way of demonstrating our fluency in the cultures we study. Putting expressions in the local language and script – even if not a single reader understands it – is a key way we perform our identity as an anthropologist.
2 This was presumably based on the premise that I was about to collapse from starvation to respond in such an inappropriate way. Perhaps in part due to my initial honesty, or because care is often shown through food, the mother in the family I lived with was always trying to feed me. Indeed, she took great delight in any weight gain, proudly declaring that I was becoming a little doong doong han (a.k.a. ‘fat’). I quickly became resigned to public commentary on my weight,* albeit exclusively amongst older Koreans.
* And my appearance, which was frequently dissected by older women on the subway who had no idea that I could speak Korean (badly, for the record; my skills are virtually non-existent now). My blue eyes, I soon learned, were ‘pretty’ (yeboyo) and my face had an okay shape from the front, but was no good from the side – the gist of such commentary was that I should take pains to avoid glimpses of my profile, especially by a prospective husband, until after we were wed.
3 For the record, ‘How are you?’ is, strictly speaking, a greeting substitute rather than a greeting per se. According to Harvey Sacks, this is an expression that can either follow a greeting (like ‘Hello’), or substitute for it.
4 This is why it’s awkward when you bump into someone you know in a public toilet – you’re often unsure whether to greet them or not. What typically happens is some kind of minor acknowledgement before you return to studiously ignoring their presence and hoping they are doing likewise, especially if you’d had bean chilli for lunch.
5 Cough, Tim Bell, cough. For the record, ‘How are you?’ is not an invitation to elaborate on the frequency and consistency of your morning bowel movements, or your itchy anus and how well the psyllium husks are working.
6 Actually, in discussing the diagnostic sequence, Sacks focuses only on negative responses, but I suspect this is because he was American. Positive responses cause as much trouble as negative responses in the UK for reasons that will shortly become apparent.