If you’re catching up with a French-speaking friend, old or new, you’ll probably want to ask them how they are, and vice versa. As with English, there are several ways of asking after somebody in French, and a variety of ways to reply as well.
One important thing to bear in mind when addressing others in French is that there are two forms of you: tu, which is singular and familiar; and vous, which is plural and/or formal. If you are chatting to someone new, particularly someone senior to you, then it’s always safest to use the vous form. Many people prefer not to be addressed so formally and may well invite you to address them as tu instead once you get to know them a little (On peut se tutoyer. We can use ‘tu’.).
The easiest way to ask others how they’re doing is Comment ça va? (How are you? / How are things?). If you’re in a hurry, a simple Ça va? will do just fine – however, note that a quick question like this will usually invite an equally short reply, so bear that in mind if you want details!
Another, more formal way of posing the question is Comment allez-vous ? (How are you?). You can also use this if you are addressing more than one person. Inverted constructions, where the verb appears before the noun or pronoun, are always considered more formal in French. So although you can also say Comment vas-tu? (How are you?), using the informal tu form, this is considered a far more formal way of asking the question than Comment tu vas?, which is more commonly used.
If you have studied French before, you may have noticed that the verb being used in the questions above is not être (to be), but aller (to go): être is not used in French for asking someone how they are. However, être may be used by the other person when replying…more on that later.
Other ways of asking someone else how they are in French include:
Ça va bien? Vous allez bien?
Are you well?
Comment tu te portes? Comment vous portez-vous?
How do you feel? / How are you feeling?
This kind of question usually invites a fuller reply: you might ask this if someone hasn’t been well, for example.
Quoi de neuf? Quoi de nouveau?
What’s happening? / What’s new with you?
One to use in a more informal setting with an old friend, rather than someone you’ve just met.
Quoi de beau?
Literally, what’s beautiful? – another informal expression, but one that invites the person to share some positive or pleasant news.
The following responses are polite enough for a new acquaintance, but general enough for a good friend, too:
Très bien, merci.
Very well, thank you.
Je vais bien, merci.
I am doing well, thank you.
A few less formal replies might include:
Ça va bien.
I’m fine. / Things are good.
Comme ci, comme ça.
Almost invariably, any of the responses given above will be followed by Et vous? or Et toi? (And you?).
Finally, it’s worth noting that while aller can be used to give general statements about how you are, être would be used if you are giving more specific information about your mood or your health:
Je suis malade.
Je suis content.
Don’t forget to come back for the next blog post to help you continue with the conversation!