Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I’m Fine, How Are You?

Posted by Neal on February 25, 2005

Adam’s preschool class starts 15 minutes later than Doug’s kindergarten class, so in the cold weather we’ve usually spent the time hanging out in the school office, looking at the fish in the aquarium, examining the group picture of the 2004-2005 faculty and staff on the wall, and talking with the administrators. Now they all know Adam by name, and always say hi to him when he comes in. This is a good opportunity to make sure Adam’s practicing the social skills we’re trying to make sure he learns–in this case, when someone says hi to you, say hi back. Well, unless it’s some guy in a car who pulls up beside you while you’re walking on the sidewalk, etc., etc., but you get the idea.

And there’s the related rule: When someone asks you how you’re doing, use “(I’m doing) fine” as a default answer. He’s getting good at this, enough that I figured I’d polish the skill a little. Yesterday, when one of the administrators said, “Hi, Adam, how are you?” and he said, “Fine,” I complimented him on his politeness, and then added, “After you’ve said ‘fine,’ it’s nice to ask them how they’re doing.”

A minute or so later, the school’s speech therapist came in. Adam knows her quite well, seeing her in the office almost every day, and at least once a week in class. Still, I was surprised to hear him initiate the greeting, saying, “Hi, Ann, how are you doing?”

“I’m doing fine, Adam,” she replied. “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing fine!” Then, “How are you doing?”

Oops. I’d taught him too specific a version of the rule, one that assumed it’d always be someone else greeting him first. What a pleasant surprise for him to go first (and then afterward invite Ann to look at his new Happy Meal toy), but now I’d better give him the more abstract rule. Once each of you has had a turn to ask how the other is doing and to respond, the transaction is over.

One Response to “I’m Fine, How Are You?”

  1. Anonymous said

    An analogous situation was presented in the movie _Bicentennial Man_ based on the Asimov short story of the same name. The robot was told that when someone said “good night” to it, it should respond in kind. It then expected the first person to respond in kind because it had said “good night” to him. They went through a couple of iterations before the human told the robot that it only had to say “good night” *once*. The robot agreed that that was better than being caught in an infinitely recursive loop:-).

    Jason B.

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