DEAR MISS MANNERS: I’ve probably watched one too many classic movies and read too many old books, because I’ve started to say “How do you do?” when I meet someone for the first time, or as a greeting in formal or business encounters. Someone told me it was outdated after I said it to them.
Is it strange to use it these days? Could Miss Manners kindly advise on this before I raise more eyebrows?
GENTLE READER: Raise them. “How do you do?” is the correct thing to say after an introduction. But please hang on for a short tutorial on the usefulness of conventional expressions.
“Pleased to meet you” sounds cordial, but it, too, can be questioned, because how do you know how pleasant it will turn out to be to meet any particular stranger? It is considered unctuous by fastidious Americans -- and by all of England, who attacked the Duchess of Cambridge’s mother for saying it upon first meeting the queen.
Miss Manners is afraid that in this literal-minded age, people mistake “How do you do?” for a question. It is not, and the proper answer is another “How do you do?”
An actual question would be “How are you?” but that, too, is conventional. Unless it is asked by one’s intimates or one’s doctor, it requires some sort of positive response: “Fine, thank you; how are you?”
Conventions mercifully save us from probing motives, so we can move on to real conversation.