Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

How do you do?

Lord Darlington: How do you do, Lady Windemere?  Lady Windemere: How do you do, Lord Darlington? 
- Lady Windemere’s Fan 1892 by Oscar Wilde.
Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed my name…
- Sympathy for the Devil 1968 by The Rolling Stones.


THE English language can be quite confusing when it comes to meeting someone for the first time.

The formal and very British expression used on a first encounter is How do you do?

The correct response is not: Fine, Good or Not bad.

The right response, which is nonsensical, is to repeat: How do you do?

This bizarre expression is not a question. It’s a form of politesse that loosely translates as echanté(e) in French, but leaves many speakers of English as a second language scratching their heads (in a state of confusion).

How do you do is usually reserved for meeting someone your senior or someone you feel merits respect. It’s a theatrical expression that’s falling out of linguistic favour, tainted (negatively affected) by its lack of logic and its British upper class origins.

Take for example, this scene from the film My Fair Lady, set in a time where everything; accent, education and salutation clearly defined your class and social standing.  ‘Ello (hello) was the greeting of the working class and How do you do, spoken in a plummy accent was the salutation of the gentry. (A plummy accent is one used by the aristocracy and upper class which sounds as if they have a plum (prune) in their mouth when speaking).

How do you do has now been replaced by the following more egalitarian phrases (NB: only used the first time you meet someone):

Pleased to meet you – (Mick Jagger’s preferred option)

Nice to meet you

Both are preferred phrases in international learning methods for students of English. In American English How do you do is about as rare as hen’s teeth (extremely rare). The expression migrated across the Atlantic but was quickly shortened in the southern states to the informal Howdy (Howdy Partner in cowboy films).

While more democratic and utilitarian, these alternative expressions lack the theatrical effect of a How do you do, which is often spoken with a slight reverential bow of the head. Perhaps it’s all very English, but a delightful and charming combination of spoken and body language.

In this electronic age, words and expressions are being forced to shed (lose) their syllables and subtleties until all that is left, if you are lucky, is a contraction, an initial or this odd yellow man:





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