Friday, March 20, 2009

Something that Bothers me Slightly more than it should.

A question that tends to confuse me is "How's it going?"

Before anyone accuses me of lacking even a basic understanding of the rudiments of casual conversation, let me take the opportunity to assert that I am aware that, when conversing face-to-face with someone and initialising a conversation,the standing convention is to utter "How's it going?", or an appropriate variation, which reflects the anticipated formality of the situation. Convention in this situation is so strong that it typically overrides our social imperative to avoid lying, to the extent that we nearly always respond in the positive, irrespective of the actual nature of our feelings.

Now that I have analysed the sentence to the full extent of my ability -- as well as demonstrate my social insight in the only way I know how -- I shall now complain about it.

What confuses me about "How's it going?" is when people ask me as we walk past each other in opposite directions. If the questioner slows to a halt in front of me, then what is expected is expected of me is fairly clear: an answer. But, too often for my pleasure, the person asking the question continues walking, not even slowing. Am I expected to answer? Probably not, since the opportunity to do so wasn't explicitly offered. But, why ask the question at all? One could argue on the grounds of functionality: it isn't a real question, but rather, a signal of acknowledgment. However, "How's it going?" doubles as a conversion initiator: it's something that we say in order to kick-off a conversation.

When people walk past me saying "How's it going?" instead of simply "hi", but not slowing for an answer, there is a mix of contexts. "Hi" is not a conversation initiator: it does not serve the purpose of beginning a discourse. Instead, it acknowledges solidarity, and the fact that the two speakers know one-another, but that they don't have the time or inclination for talking just at the moment. So the two just keep on walking.

When people mix these contexts -- a conversation initiator in the place of a superficial greeting -- it creates confusion (for at least one person in this world). To me, it amounts to functionally saying "I would talk to you but, well, I wouldn't give a crap."

This inspires me to undertake a little project. I will get to the nature of the project in a moment, but first, a brief tangent.

A friend of mine who studied linguistics with me, Rachel, (I wonder if she reads my blog. "Hi," if she does) once set out to change the standard plural of mattress to mattri -- with a small measure of success (impressive, really, if you consider how infrequently the plural of mattress comes up in normal conversation). This project led to a conversation over curry on how theoretical models of language change don't account for "Rouge Linguists."

Now I shall pick up the torch of "The Rogue-Linguistic Variable of Language Change". Here is my proposition: the next time someone asks you "How's it going", in a functionally ambiguous context, don't look at them blankly. Don't display your uncertainty, or say "Pretty-good-how-are-you?" in the few seconds that you are allowed. Instead:

"How's it going?"

"Pretty badly, actually."

Don't slow down, or give the other party the chance to respond. Let them be the one confused, unsure if they are expected to say something or not. I hope this amounts to functionally saying "You're not sure if you want to stop and talk to me or not? Well up yours, you indecisive jerk."

4 comments:

Erin said...

Red Linguists?

theflyingnerd said...

Actually something i've had a small measure of difficultly with myself. I tend to answer such a question with a full answer, which frequently creates a confusion in the trajectory of the other party. I've also casually noted that it's generally considered polite to reply with the standard "yeah not too bad" and to reciprocate with a question of a similar form, which causes significant difficulty when taking into account the fact that most people walk past at such a rate that the final exchange must take place once you are about 5m past each other.

It has just occurred to me however, that "How do you do" or it's more modern and deep southern form "Howdy" share the quality of being semantically rooted in the same question as "How's it going?", but has over the years become a word of protocol.

Maria said...

Yeah, it really is a problem. I have three possible answers to "How's it going?" - "Terribly," "Reasonably," and "Fabulous." [I don't know why the last isn't an adverb.] I toss them over my shoulder, followed by "you?" as I walk past. Having the prepared one-word answers makes them the ones who don't get to answer the question.

Cage said...

Personally, i take the opposite approach; I assume that everyone is as self-centerdly narcississtic as my cynical world view will allow, and thus are only asking "hows it going" in the hope that i will reply with "fine thanks, how are you?" (as dictated by social etiquette.)

Basically, theyre only asking how i am to allow them the opportunity to talk about themselves.

So when i am the recipient of this 'conversation', it goes more like

Them: "Hows it going"

Me: "Hi"

Them: confused pause whilst searching for an excuse to start talking about themselves

Me: seizing on the moment of confusion, exit stage right