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Jack Smith

Stock phrases: Meetings and greetings, mindless chatter and the risks of replies

February 19, 1986|JACK SMITH

Most people, I am finding out, don't really mind being invited to "Have a nice day" or "Enjoy your lunch."

It is human to fall back on stock phrases to ease the several encounters we are obliged to have with strangers every day in a big city.

When we are introduced to someone there are, after all, only a few acceptable phrases we can use, the most common being the fatuous "How do you do?"

That one alone demonstrates the hardiness of such devices. It is archaic, unanswerable and silly. And yet it has survived the social upheavals and revolutions of World War II, the Age of Aquarius, the women's liberation movement and the Space Age.

There are alternatives: "Pleased to meet you" or "How ya doin'? " or "Howdy" or "Nice t' meetcha," all harmless lubricants used to get us through the stress of an introduction.

Imagine what meetings would be like if we didn't have these meaningless buffers. What if we actually said what came to mind?

"So you're the jerk my wife thinks is divine," or "If I were only 30 years younger, toots," or "Oh, yes, you're the notorious home wrecker. . . ."

Social intercourse would be impossible.

It is important to remember that these inane greetings don't call for any answers.

The response to "How do you do?" is "How do you do?," which in turn requires no answer, since the person asking the question has not answered the first person's question. It is a polite standoff.

Of course there is a certain risk in asking a non-interrogative question. Sometimes you get an answer.

"There seems to be an unwritten law that all checkout clerks must say 'Hi' (not necessarily with a smile) followed by 'How are you,' " writes Barbara E. Moe of Santa Ana. "This is not a question because they really don't wish to know."

At her supermarket recently, when the checkout girl said, "Hi, how are you," Ms. Moe told her:

"Smiling warmly, I said, 'I'm so glad you asked. The day has barely begun but it doesn't show much promise. I didn't sleep well last night and I think I'm coming down with a cold.'

"She rather absently murmured 'That's nice' as she rang up my purchases, then sang out, 'Have a nice day.' "

Ms. Moe wasn't playing the game. Fortunately, the checkout girl had the good sense to go on with the ritual even though it had been rudely violated by her customer.

Rule 1 of human confrontation is that when someone asks "How are you?" they don't really want to know, and you shouldn't tell them.

Imagine what society would be like if, when you asked someone "How do you do?" he answered, "Not bad. I banked $65,000 last year after taxes, my corporation's stock went up 2 points today, my gall bladder has stopped acting up and my daughter is marrying the nerd she's been living with."

Frank W. Spencer Jr. of Goleta writes that he abominates "Have a nice day" and "Enjoy your meal," but saves his deepest animosity for "that transitive imperative without an object--'Enjoy!' 'Enjoy what ?' I scream."

But most readers agree with Dr. Thomas E. Militello of Rancho Palos Verdes, who observes that "Have a nice day" and "Enjoy your lunch" are not true imperatives but simply shortened forms of declarative sentences.

"Both are similar to phrases such as 'Goodby,' Good luck," and 'Bon voyage.' In truth, the speaker is declaring 'I hope you have nice day,' 'I hope you enjoy your meal. . . .'

"Even the phrase 'Good day,' when used at the time of leaving, is an even shorter version of the declarative, 'I hope you have a good day,' yet no one seems to mind this the way they do 'Have a nice day.' "

The verdict was divided on that rather intimidating question, so often asked by people who fear that their territory is being invaded: "Can I help you?"

"Dan Musser's overreaction seems moronically inappropriate," writes John Degatina. "If he's in a place at a time where he's not expected to be, he should expect to be challenged. 'Can I help you?' is a commonly understood euphemism for 'What the hell are you doing here?'

"As for 'Have a nice day,' when it's accompanied by a smile, it's a hell of a lot nicer than 'Drop dead!' "

Inevitably, some readers complained that "Can I help you?" isn't grammatical.

Frank Spencer asks: "Is it only my long-departed high school English teacher of 40 years ago who would still insist on ' May I help you?' Was she the last of a proper breed of English speakers to distinguish between can , meaning physically able, and may , indicating request or permission?"

Writes E. Jay Krause: " 'Can I help you?' from a stranger cannot be answered unless one is aware of his abilities. 'May I help you?' is a different matter!"

Jon Yates of Venice may have overheard the classic response to "Can I help you?" when it is asked in that peremptory tone that makes us feel threatened.

"Speaking of territorial challenges," he writes, "an English friend and I wandered innocently into a room at UCLA where there was a group in session. A stern-looking woman quickly approached us with 'Can I help you?' My friend looked her over for a moment. Then, with a British accent sounding just the right note, he answered, 'Madam, what could you possibly do for me?' "

There are times when all of us might wish we had a British accent.

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