You know when someone is talking, but you can’t really comprehend what they’re saying? You can see their mouth moving, hear the sound they make, but the words just don’t make any sense. So, you stare at them, a little too long, trying to piece the puzzle together but you come out empty handed and so you smile, maybe even laugh a little, and hope that that was the correct response.

Then you see their face and you realize it wasn’t even close, and now they’re looking at you like you have two heads and no brain. And so, you stupidly ask what they said, only it’s a minute and a laugh too late for you to save face.

No? Well, that’s what Hi, how are you? does to me.

I grew up in a small town in Sweden, so I’m used to greeting people I pass in the street, even if I don’t know them. We say hello (usually twice, because why not) and if the weather is nice, we usually feel the need to mention that too. But that’s a very small town thing to do. In the larger towns and in cities, we avoid eye contact at all costs.

The only exception is if you know someone really well; then you’re allowed to give them a curt nod, and maybe even a small smile, before moving on. Unless we’re feeling particularly unsocial that day, then we just look the other way, pretend we never saw them and deny, deny, deny if they ever ask.

It couldn’t be more different here. I lose count on how many times a day I reply to Hi, how are you? and every time I chose a different defense tactic. Sometimes I stop and have a conversation, sometimes I throw a response over my shoulder and hurry to the class I was already late for, and sometimes I simply smile and walk on. I’ve been told the last one is just rude.

So what does it mean? What do you want me to do? Is it simply a greeting phrase? Am I only supposed to say that I’m good and ask the question back? But how are you supposed to have time for that and hear a response in passing? Unless it’s not just a greeting and you’re supposed to stop and have an actual conversation. Or do you just not rush everywhere you go here and actually have time for a full conversation without stopping?

Most of the time, though, people just keep walking and leave me stranded in a state of absolute despair because after almost seven months here, I still have absolutely no clue what to do. It’s like a Rubik’s cube, some people say it’s obvious and yet I’m convinced they’re just moving the stickers when I’m not looking.