Posted by Al on May 27, 2004
In Reply to: How are you today? posted by ESC on May 27, 2004
: : : : : : : : Hi,
: : : : : : : : I have a confusion with a phrase " Not too Bad" heavily used by my peer in the office. English is his second language as mine but he says that when he uses this it mean good. I have a different opinion I think this means he is nott that bad, but still BAD????
: : : : : : : : Can anyone please let me know what exatly it means when one says " I am not too bad!"
: : : : : : : : Thanks and Regards,
: : : : : : : : Khan
: : : : : : : to me, a native English speaker, it implies something marginally better than 'bad'; something that is 'reasonable', 'up to the job', but not much more than that - just about OK, or very slightly better.
: : : : : : It depends on how it is said. "Not too bad!" with a tone of admiration could mean "very good."
: : : : : If somebody told me my work was "not too bad", meaning "good" by their tone of admiration, I might take it as condescending, or that their expectations were not very high to begin with. I'd prefer "not too shabby", which I think is more genuine.
: : : : The English are notorious for understatement. Not too bad would commonly mean very good. This habit can lead to confusion with other English-speaking people. In the Second World War, a party of soldiers were heavily outnumbered and reported that they were "in a little trouble". The message was received by an American radio operator who took it literally and did not recognise their need for assistance.
: : : Pasting in Khan's additional question:
: : : : I was happy with the response from James, but now it seems that this phrase also depends upon the tone of voice or gesture of the person saying. Please correct me if I am wrong. If someone says "Not too bad" in a normal mood replying "How are you" that means he is slightly better than bad, and if someone is saying this after looking at the project report of his/her junior with the tone of admiration then it mean "very good"...
: : : Thanks and Regards,
: : : Khan.
: : : If you are inquiring about someone's health, etc., and he says, "Not too bad," it would mean "OK." Not great but not horrible. When someone asks me I always say, "Fair to middlin'."
: : Unless you have just returned from the hospital, or are generally known to have had a serious illness, you are expected to respond to a question like "How are you?" with a modicum of hypocrisy. One can say "Fine; how are you?" Or one can be honest, even if no one wants or expects it. My answer to "How are you?" is sometimes "Better." (I like to leave 'em guessing.) But in general I would recommend that people speaking a second language eschew altogether any "idiomatic" expressions not taught in their courses or textbooks. One reason that this website exists is that even native speakers do not all understand "common sayings" the same way. There's not much at stake when an office-mate says "Not too bad" when questioned about his health. Cryptic answers to such questions are generally, and correctly, ignored. But sometimes there's more at stake, as in Henry's example of a British unit in trouble being misunderstood by a Yank. British (and even American) understatement and self-deprecation can invite misunderstanding in people not fully conversant with it. So do seemingly contradictory expressions like "Not too bad." Like ESC, I would assume that whoever is "Not TOO bad," is "okay" at worst. So why not just say, "Okay," or "Fine, and you?" SS
: Have you seen the movie "Wit" starring Emma Thompson? She has cancer and is going through horrendous experimental chemotherapy. The doctors always ask her, "How are you today?" And she always responds, "Fine," knowing that the docs aren't listening anyway. She muses (to the camera) that when she is finally dead, they will still ask her "How are you doing today." She said, "Sorry I'm going to miss that."
I recall a chapter in my freshman semantics textbook that stated, in affect, "When someone says 'How are you today?' they probably are not asking about your health." In the rural and small town US there are a lot of, someone said idiomatic, responses such as "Not too bad.", "Better", "About the same.", "Could be worse." and on the other had "Never been better!", "Great.", "Just fine." I would trust the first group to more accurately reflect that the subjective state of mind of the speaker was positive.