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Friday, August 29, 2014

All well and good


I was just rather flabbergasted to read this advice in a Forbes magazine piece about appropriate language for customer service: 
Subtly insulting: In an informal business, if a customer asks, ‘‘How are you?’’ the response ‘‘I’m well’’ may make you feel like you’re using proper-sounding grammar—but may not be the best choice. Hearing this Victorian-sounding response may make your customers momentarily self-conscious about whether their own grammar is less than perfect. It may be better to have your employees choose from more familiar alternatives like, ‘‘I’m doing great!’’ or "Super!’’
Victorian???  Hey, buddy, I learned to reply "well (thank you!)" to this question, and that was in the 1960s. A lot of people are still outraged by the new, and previously highly censured, custom of replying "good", which seems to have started its remarkable upward trajectory in the mid-1990s, though it has been around longer than that. 

"Well", meanwhile, has been used to mean "in good health" since the 1300s. Before that we were "isound" or "hale" or even "whole". I wonder if any customer service gurus in Shakespeare's time were warning businesses to have their staff avoid saying, "I'm hale, thank you!" as being "so Plantagenet!"

The "good" option has probably become the more common one, and I do use it myself, since there is no reason not to. "Good" is an adjective (as is "well" in this usage), and has multitudinous meanings, so there's no reason why "in acceptable health" shouldn't be one of them. But that doesn't mean that we should start condemning "well" as Victorian (not to mention "subtly insulting").

However, this comment is quite amazing as an indicator of the rapidity of language change: a usage which was drummed into children a mere 30 or so years ago as being the only correct one is now itself being criticized. 

How do you react to "well" and "good" as answers to the question "How are you?"? Do you think "well" is stuffy? If someone in a customer service position said, "I'm well, thanks, and you?", would it make you "momentarily self-conscious about whether [your] own grammar is less than perfect"?

Or do you feel that "good" is a solecism and "ungrammatical"? It isn't ungrammatical, by the way; it's perfectly grammatical. But it still may irritate you if it's not the convention you grew up with -- and this type of linguistic interaction is all about convention. 

What advice would YOU give to someone in the service industry? "I'm doing great!"?

Let me know in the comments!


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  1. Not offended by "I'm well, thank you." In fact, I realize that I tend to use "well" if it's in a sentence, but "good" as a single-word answer.

    Not sure why, other than the fact that "I'm good" doesn't sit well in my ear.

    Also, I like George Carlin's approach - "I say, "I'm not unwell, thank you." That annoys them, because they have to work it out for themselves."

  2. I'm starting to say "good", after years of disapproval, because I'm now at the age when I don't want to discuss health.

  3. I always thought of "well" in this context as an adverb, not an adjective. As in, "I am doing well" cf. "I am doing poorly". To me this is why I have avoided using "good" to respond to "how are you?"

    1. But the minute you say, "I am well" it is an adjective, just as "I am healthy/sick/fine" are all adjectives.

  4. These days, "fabulous" is my preferred response . More seriously, come to think of it, I use "good" on an everyday basis, and "well" when I've been unwell and am back at work e.g. and people ask me how I am. So I guess I associate "well" with "wellness". Hmm. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  5. I tend to use "Good, thanks!" if I'm responding to what is just a conditioned "How are you?" (a standard greeting in passing, like "Hi") but I say "I'm great, thanks, and you?" when I can stop and actually listen to the answer.

    Katherine, I'm guessing it's a typo in the line that says "Before that we were "isound" or "hale" or even "whole". " I've never heard of "isound"...is it a new term coined by Apple??

    1. no, it's not a typo, it's Old and Middle English. Here's the OED entry:
      † iˈsound, adj.
      Forms: Forms OE gesund, ME i-sund, ME ysound.
      Etymology: Old English gesund = Old Saxon gisund , Old High German gisunt , German gesund , Dutch gezond . The prefix ge- , ge- of the old languages has fallen off in later English and Frisian: see sound adj. The ulterior etymology is uncertain.
      Sound, in health, well, safe.
      OE Beowulf 1628 Þæs þe hi hyne gesundne geseon moston.
      c1000 Ælfric Gram. (Z.) xxxiii. 209 Aue oððe salue beo gesund,..Auete, saluete, beoþ gesunde.
      c1275 (▸?a1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1963) l. 150 Þe child wes iboren isund.
      c1275 Passion our Lord 186 in Old Eng. Misc. 42 Leteþ þeos bileuen hol and isunde.
      c1380 Sir Ferumbras (1879) l. 1993 Þat no lym be laft y-sounde.

  6. "I'm fine, thanks." is what I usually say ...or I might elaborate a little with "thanks for asking".

  7. "Good" as a response to "How are you?" doesn't bother me nearly as much as it does in response to "Would you like another helping?" It usually comes out as "I'm good," sometimes as "I'm good, thanks." From younger people, clearly.

    I used to reply, "I know you're good, but would you like another helping?" In recent times I've come to realize that that battle has been lost, so I'm trying to curb my tongue.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.