Kate Fox, social anthropologist and chronicler – in her recently reissued book Watching The English – of the small, exquisite social agonies and anxieties with which our septic isle is stuffed, has called for a reinstatement of “How do you do?” as everyone’s introduction of choice. What balm to the fevered soul trapped in a roomful of strangers and even stranger canapés that would be.
“How do you do?” is the perfect instance of phatic speech, which is all the formally meaningless stuff you say that performs the far more vital function of greasing the social wheels. “How do you do?” as a genuine question is madness. How do I do what? Professionally? Personally? At specific tasks? Charades? Cor anglais? What it really means is, “I am non-aggressive, willing to engage and you may trust that I have both a basic grasp of contemporary mores and an ability to abide by them. Unless, of course, I come across an unsuspected dollop of horseradish in this canapé, in which case all bets are off. Let us proceed on this basis.”