"How Are You?" Means "Hello!
Has this every happened to you? You offer a perfectly inconspicuous greeting and then - misunderstanding and rudeness ensues. When communicating across cultures, this easily happens.
Take these two for example:
What do you think happened here?
Let's say Mrs Smith is from the USA, and Stefan is from Germany. "How are you?" is the customary greeting in the States, and between colleagues its intentions basically cover greeting and acknowledgment. The customary response is something like "Fine, thanks, and you?" The comparable greeting in German would be "Hallo (hello)", or "Guten Tag (good day)". There are variations for the morning and evening, as I'm sure you know, they are "Guten Morgen" and "Guten Abend", respectively.
"Wie geht es Ihnen?", the literal translation of "how are you?" is actually an enquiry after someone's health and general well-being. Among colleagues and relative strangers, not many Germans would launch into a complete medical history, but a few sentences beyond "fine", like the ones demonstrated above, are normal. The answers get more elaborate the closer the relationship is, as is the case among American friends and family as well, when the question is aimed at figuring out how someone is doing.
So, Americans! If you don't want to hear how your German colleague is feeling, try a more neutral greeting like "good morning!" and see what happens. And for the Germans - "how are you?" means "hello!"
Image by Paolo Rinaldo, Flickr, Creative Commons License.