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In English it is polite to ask

How are you?
What's up?
How do you do?

after a greeting. The answer of course is always something like

Thanks, I'm fine.
Not much

Complaints about personal mischiefs are considered inappropriate.

What are corresponding modern French salutations in

  • formal settings
  • in an informal setting
  • amongst young people
  • amongst close friends
  • online chat

What answer is expected on such a question?

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3  
I think this is a cultural difference, but while in English one often says "How are you?" as a greeting, in French, if you ask "Comment ça va?" or "Ça va?", you're expecting to get an actual answer, not just an acknowledging "What's up?" back. I just thought it was worth noting. –  Tipx Aug 19 '11 at 16:19
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6 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

In French, the words that come with the greeting are as important as the greeting itself. The same expression can therefore be used in different contexts, but preceded or followed by different words:

Most formal version (hierarchical or commercial context):

— Bonjour, [titre], comment allez-vous ?
— Pour le mieux, merci. Et vous-même ?
— Très bien, je vous remercie.

"Normally polite" version:

— Bonjour, comment allez-vous ? (Without adding the title of the person we speak to)
— Très bien, merci, et vous ? ("Vous-même" vs "vous" makes the difference here)
— Ça va bien, merci ("Ca va bien" is not too formal but is still ok as an answer)

Less formal version (suitable for co-workers as an example, or well-established commercial relationships):

  • How to ask:

    Bonjour ! Vous allez bien ? ("Vous allez" is less formal than "allez-vous")
    Bonjour, comment ça va ? ("Ça va" is also less formal than "allez-vous")
    Bonjour ! Ça va ? (Removing "comment" is even less formal but still OK)

  • How to reply:

    Ça va bien, merci, et vous ? (Like in the "normally polite" section)
    Très bien, merci, et vous? (Like in the "normally polite" section)
    Ça va ça va, merci ! Et vous ? (Repeating "ça va" is less formal and more "friendly", but is still OK)
    On fait aller, merci ! Et vous ? (Similarly, "on fait aller" is less formal and more "friendly", but is still OK)

Friendly version:

  • How to ask:

    Salut, ça va ?
    Salut, tu vas bien ?
    Salut, comment tu vas ?
    Hello ! Comment va ?
    Salut ! Ça va bien ? (As a question, that's friendly. Way less formal than as an answer (see above))

  • How to reply:

    Ça va ! Et toi ?
    Pas mal, et toi ? (This is the exact equivalent of "Not too bad!" in english)
    Oui, bien, et toi ?
    On fait aller, et toi ?
    Tranquillement, et toi ?

Colloquial/slang:

  • How to ask:

    Salut ! ça roule ? Salut ! La pêche ? Salut ! La forme ? Salut ! Ça gaze ? Salut ! Ça boume ?

    Etc. You can be creative. And this evolves every day. I actually don't know what they say in high schools at the time being.

  • How to reply:

    Any of the above (Ça roule !, la pêche, etc), or also:

    Tranquilou ! Et toi ?
    Pépère, et toi ?
    Tranquille, et toi ?

    Etc. You can be creative as well. And it evolves the same way as the questions do.

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3  
I am impressed how colorful French is ;) –  Takkat Sep 1 '11 at 8:23
    
Yes, and sometimes that's a lot of fun to determine which level to apply, depending of the way you would like to shape the relationship you are establishing :) –  Shlublu Sep 1 '11 at 8:28
2  
Il y a aussi Fort bien, équivalent plus soutenu de Très bien. –  mouviciel Jul 19 '13 at 15:35
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Un seul commentaire sur la prononciation: la meilleure expression est sans doute "Bonjour, comment allez-vous", mais on doit absolument entendre le t de la liaison après comment: phonétiquement

komantalévou

Cette liaison vous fera franchir plusieurs barreaux de l'échelle sociale.

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Question :

Formal : Comment allez vous ?
Informal : Comment ça va ? Ça va bien ?
All the others : Ça va ? La forme ? Tranquille ? Ça roule ? La pêche ? Bien ou bien ?

Positive answers :

Très bien, merci. Et vous ?
Bien, et toi/vous ?
Bien, ouais, tranquille, ça roule, pas mal, pas pire (Québec), ça va

Negative answers : Très bien, merci. Et vous ?
J'ai quelques soucis, mais sinon, ça va plutôt bien, merci. Et toi/vous ?
Ça va pas terrible, c'est la misère, trop pas, j'suis en galère, c'est pas tip-top, on a connu mieux

These lists are not exhaustive, and the formal negative answer is the same one than the positive answer. That's on purpose, yes.

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Here are my suggestions. They are likely to vary greatly among generations, social classes, regions and countries.

Formal

How are you?

Comment allez-vous ?

What's up?

I can't really think of a polite, formal way to ask what's up... I would consider it quite impolite in French to ask this question to someone who is not close. You might however say something like:

Quelles sont les nouvelles?

Thanks, I'm fine

Bien, merci.

or

Très bien, merci.

Not much

Pas grand' chose.

Example of a formal exchange

  • Bonjour, comment allez-vous?
  • Bien, merci, et vous?
  • Très bien. Comment vont les affaires?
  • Plutôt bien merci.

Informal/friends

How are you?

Comment vas-tu ?

or

Comment ça va ?

What's up?

Quoi de neuf ?

(literally, "What's new?")

Thanks, I'm fine

Ça va bien, merci.

Not much

Pas grand' chose.

Example of an informal exchange

  • Salut, ça va?
  • Ça va, et toi?
  • Pas trop mal. Quoi de neuf?
  • Que du vieux!

Amonst young (and cool) people

How are you?

Ça roule?

Ça gaze?

Ça farte?

(cf. le film "Brice de Nice")

What's up?

Sup?

(Yep, this is English)

Thanks, I'm fine

Ça roulotte.

(as an answer to "ça roule ?").

Example of an exchange between young people

  • Yo man, ça gaze?
  • À donf! Sup?
  • Dalque!
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1  
Or, of course, "Comment allez-vous?". (Some people would also use "Ça va?" to avoid the tu/vous dilemma) –  Joubarc Aug 19 '11 at 7:54
1  
@Joubarc, and you could answer with "Ça va!", I think it's more informal. –  chepseskaf Aug 19 '11 at 7:58
    
"Ça va ?" is indeed informal. So is "Quoi de neuf ?", by the way. –  olivier Aug 19 '11 at 8:01
6  
Ne pas oublier la réponse correcte à "Comment vas-tu, yau de poêle?" qui est "Pas mal, et toi, ture en zinc?" –  Joubarc Aug 19 '11 at 8:12
2  
ou encore "Bien, et toi, la matelas?" –  Smugrik Aug 19 '11 at 8:56
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Other answers provides already good example. So just to add some little possibilities when you are with friends (use it when you would use 'sup?' in English):

  • "Ça va?"
  • "La forme?"
  • "Ça roule?"
  • "Ça gaze?"
  • "Ça boum?"

Some will used some strange variations like film references:

  • "Ça farte?"

Or also other language variations :

  • "Geht's"? (from the German "Wie geht es dir?")
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Pour un lorrain, tu aurais du citer notre ultra-classique et très local Comment qu'c'est?, ou la forme étendue Comment qu'c'est, gros?, adressable à tout individu indépendamment de son sexe ou de sa corpulence, soit dit en passant. (Allez, +1 quand même, ta réponse est utile :-) –  Romain VALERI Jan 8 at 13:46
    
Il y a tellement de variations aussi. –  M'vy Jan 9 at 15:29
    
A Nancy, il ne varie presque pas, il est iconique, ce Comment qu'c'est? (pour une prestigieuse référence, voir ou plutôt écouter Les amis d'ta femme) –  Romain VALERI Jan 9 at 21:56
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“Comment allez-vous ?” is fine in most settings. It can be answered either by “Comment allez-vous ?” (most neutral position), by “Bien, et vous ?” or any *“XXX, et vous ?” where XXX is short.

If you use tu to refer to the other person, then it is “Comment vas-tu ?”. In a more informal settings, you would go towards “Comment ça va ?” (same rules for answering back in kind).

There are tons more ways of greating people, but that's the basics. As in English, the general rule is: this is not actually an invitation to talk at length.

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