Words Devoid of Meaning

My previous post reminded me that learning English (or any other language other than your own) takes a lifetime. I feel pretty comfortable with where I am now but almost daily I pick something up or correct something that I already know.
When I started many years ago one of the biggest revelations was that when a person says “How Do You Do” they don’t expect a short blurb on the state of your affairs. You just say “How Do You Do” back. Over the years I learned not to answer in length to “How Are You”, “What’s Up” and “Did You Find Everything You Need?”. These and other words lost their original meaning and became something you say to a person walking towards you in the narrow hallway when just silently passing them is awkward. Many foreigners who don’t know these secret English handshakes always complain that Americans are insincere, they ask how are you, but they don’t really want to know. Literal understanding of the language leads to cultural misunderstanding. Another common foreigner gripe is that Americans are always smiling with those false evil smiles while probably hating your guts. I am guilty of betraying my immigrant brothers and starting to smile some more although it took me years to get used to it. Unfortunately years of soviet evil dentistry don’t allow me to look like Howdy Doody.
This brings me to my main subject. Does it bother me when people wish me Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or Happy Hanukkah? Not at all for several reasons. One of the main ones is that these words pretty much lost their meaning. Does a Walmart cashier really care if my Christmas is merry, or do I even celebrate Christmas. Probably not. I just don’t understand the people who get mad. This clerk has to say it so Walmart doesn’t have to endure another year of being pounded on by blowhard O’Reilly. Some people may say it sincerely but by the end of their shift I doubt their desire to add to the merriness of my holidays. I understand. I just hope that they wish at the same time that O’Reilly goes to hell. I also understand that this is a long-standing American tradition, something that people did since they were children, and who am I to challenge it. I understand that for many people religious meaning is long gone and I don’t judge. Once in awhile it’s fun to reply “I am Jewish” and watch well-wisher squirm, but I’d never do it to a working stiff. There are plenty of snooty people who deserve it.
When people say nice things to me I like it, even if they don’t mean it. When people smile at me I smile back even though I know that it’s more of a reflex than their excitement to see me. It’s always better than meeting one of the students of The D or Emaw who can tell me to fuck off, or even to fuck myself. If I only could…