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As far as I know, How are you? is not supposed to be answered [1]: In most of the cases it just means hi!.

Question: Regarding the closest German equivalent, i.e. "Wie geht's (dir)?", should this question be answered?

[1] I've never lived in an English speaking country, so correct me if I'm wrong

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I have to add that I feel a bit pressured if colleagues ask me that when they just want to say hi. I feel an urge to respond but I don't want to lie on the one hand and I don't want to elaborate on the matter either because, you know, we're not friends and we won't be talking anyway. So I actually get a little tiny bit discomforted by it. If you mean "Hi" then say "Hi" ... or just say "Alles gut". Then I can just say "yes." which might be a lie too but I don't have to fill the lie with content. I just have to say "yes". Others might find "Alles gut" a bit presumptive though :) – Emanuel Jan 23 '14 at 12:32
I think an answer of sorts is expected, just not a long (or necessarily honest) one, so "Great! How are you?" might be an appropriate reply. Unlike the British "How do you do?" it is a full-blown question, though. – Ingmar Feb 27 at 15:50
@c.p. "How are you" is certainly supposed to be answered. I guess you're thinking of "how do you do". – karoshi Apr 17 at 8:28
"how are you?" as some sort of greeting regularly derails my train of thought, too, when talking to native english speakers. In my experience it's supposed to be polite, but an honest answer is not expected or is even considered rude. So in the end it appears to only be a Floskel, and a superficial at that. The key to overcoming that "hurdle" in conversation seems to be to train a reflex like "Fine, thanks. How are you?" – hiergiltdiestfu Apr 18 at 18:18

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Yes, if you are greeted with Hey, wie geht's dir?, there is usually an expectation to receive a reply:

Danke, gut! Und dir?
Geht so, und selbst?

Or if you do not want to return the question, simply:

Geht so!

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+1 for Geht so since no native German would answer the question in a positive manner. – Lars Beck Jan 23 '14 at 14:58
Muss ja, ne is what I usually say – rompetroll Jan 23 '14 at 16:56
Wie immer is what I replay to someone I already know. My opponent doesn't really expect a long answer. – nixda Jan 25 '14 at 9:15
@nixda Your opponent? Your enemies ask how you are?? – Robert Feb 27 at 18:10
no native German would answer the question in a positive manner. ? What great nonsense. – deviantfan Apr 17 at 16:24

It's not uncommon that Germans will give you a brief rundown of their current health status ("Gestern hatte ich eine fiese Erkältung, aber heute geht es schon wieder..."). "Wie geht es?" ist nicht mit dem englischen "How are you?" vergleichbar. Wenn man jemand nur begrüßen will, sagt man "guten Tag". Wenn man fragt, muss man auch mit einer Antwort rechnen.

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Basically any kind of response is at least somewhat appropriate under most circumstances. This is the main difference to "how do you do", which is so thoroughly conventionalised that an honest response would be totally unexpected and in fact not even an acknowledgement of the question is required. In German, it is still considered technically a lie if you say you are fine and you are not. Politeness can license such a lie, but especially among friends it does not require it.

The safest response if you are not in the mood to actually discuss this in detail but want to be polite is something like "Gut, und Ihnen/Dir?" Or if the person asking knows that you are not fine, you can say "Den Umständen entsprechend gut, und Ihnen/Dir?" You can try to make it clear non-verbally that you don't actually expect a response and are treating this as just a conventional greeting, but there is no absolute guarantee you will succeed. If you care about politeness less than about not hearing the other person's complaints, you might want to skip "und Ihnen/Dir?"

If you feel like it, and know the other person well and are on friendly terms with them, you might want to consider actually briefly volunteering details of why you are feeling fine, or if not, why not. (Your interlocutor can then decide whether to pursue this further or not.) Just try to remember to enquire about them afterwards to give them a chance to do likewise if they feel like it.

There are bounds to this. E.g. asking "Wie geht es Ihnen?", getting a cursory response followed by the same question, and then listing your ailments is normally considered inappropriate even by Germans. Some people actually do this in order to start a conversation on their favourite topic right away.

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