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What Americans Really Mean When They Say Things Like “How Are You?”

You can have all the dictionaries, phrasebooks, and apps in the world and still have no clue what someone really means. Once you’ve mastered English grammar and vocabulary, the new challenge is understanding the coded meanings behind English expressions.

Here’s your starter pack to help you decipher what Americans really mean during casual conversation. (Note: This list basically applies to Canadians, too.)

Common English expressions and what Americans actually mean

What Americans Really Mean - Talaera Blog Business English

1. Awesome!

You will hear this word everywhere. It crops up in texts, emails, and face-to-face conversations. The textbook definition is, “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring awe”, but people really just use it to acknowledge that someone has done something that is pretty straightforward, neither impressive nor awe-inspiring, and probably their job.

Person 1: Your appointment is booked for Tuesday at 3. We’ll see you then.
Person 2: 
Awesome! Thanks so much.

2. How are you?

All this means is “hello”. It's phrasing as a question and the reference to “you” all suggest that the asker wants to know about your physical health and emotional well-being, but unless they are your significant other or doctor, all they want to hear in return are the words, “I’m good, how are you?”

Marguerite spilled coffee on her laptop this morning. She was reprimanded by her boss for a mistake someone else made, and her doctor just diagnosed her with irritable bowel syndrome. Marguerite is NOT having a good day. She runs into a friend from college on the way home from work.

Patricia: Hey! It’s me, Patricia, from NYU. How are you?
Marguerite: “Good, good! How are you?”
Patricia: Not bad. Keeping busy.
End scene.

3. That sounds fun. I'll let you know.

A very common response to an invitation to do something. Now, depending on the relationship this may be an honest indication that the person will check their calendar to see if they are available. But more often than not, said person does not feel like participating and they are a) planning to say they can’t come via text or b) going to avoid an outright “no” in case they later learn your event will be more fun than they expected.

Employee A: I’m having some people over for my birthday on Saturday night. Would love it if you could come.
Employee B: That sounds like fun! I’ll definitely let you know.

4. We should hang out soon.

“To hang out” simply means “to spend time” together. People will say, “I was hanging out with Philip.” or “I finish work early on Friday. Want to hang out after?”
But when there’s no reference to a specific date or time, it’s a way to end a quick conversation with someone you used to be friendly with, but haven’t seen in a long time. (Honest disclosure: they probably don't actually mean that they want to see you anytime soon.)

Person 1: Wow, well it was nice running into you. I can’t believe we haven’t seen each other since college.
Person 2: I know, it’s been forever! I’ve got to run, but we should definitely hang out sometime soon.”

5. What do you do?

This question isn’t about what you do for your family or what you do to make your skin so clear. This is about what you do for money.
It is not considered a rude question to ask a stranger. In fact, it is considered an extremely safe icebreaker.

Harry: Nice to meet you, Tim. So what do you do?
Tim: I’m a senior account manager for a shipping company. How about you?

6. I'm addicted to... / I'm obsessed with...

These expressions do not imply that the speaker has a life-wrecking substance abuse problem, but all it means is that they love something very, very much.

Melanie: Do you like Chipotle?
Katrina: I’m addicted to Chipotle. I have it, like, every day for lunch and dinner.

7. Oh my gosh! It's SO good to see you!

Translation: Hi.

8. That is hilarious!!!

Translation: That's kind of funny, but not anywhere close to making me laugh out loud.

Are you confused? Do you need help?

Cross-cultural communication transcends books and guides. If you work in an international setting, you might need an expert instructor that helps you fit it in the diverse environment you live/work in. Talaera offers English courses focused on business communication, including culture training.

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[Blog Article Originally Posted on May 5, 2017 and updated on January 18, 2021]