How you dey?

‘How you dey?’ ‘How na?’ ‘How go dey go?’ ‘How body?’ or ‘How life?’ literally meaning ‘how are you’ (in different shades), is a common expression in the English speaking West African countries of Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. It represents people’s interest in assessing, everyday life of other members of society.

Call it genuine interest in others’ welfare and you will be right. Call it a fulfilment of the norm and you will also be right. It’s a form of greeting, an expression of solidarity, an interest in the other person’s state of being and a fulfilment ‘of all righteousness.’ An interesting aspect of ‘how you dey’ is that both questioner and respondent, have an unspoken expectation that the answer will be positive. Thus the common response expected and provided is ‘I dey fine’ (I’m fine.) Ironically even folks who are visibly unwell respond in the positive. Thus while contextually adequate, ‘I’m fine’, is not always a reflection of the respondent’s true state of being at the material instant.

The responses sometimes represent the individual’s motivations, hopes and aspirations and reflect their religious inclinations. Expressions such as ‘it is well’ or ‘God dey’ (God is there for me) or ‘e go better’ (things will get better) are also commonly used and their underlying factors are potentially different than they appear. For example ‘e go better’ could mean life is not quite as is ‘should be’. The responses could also be a reflection of people’s reluctance to discuss their emotions and personal circumstances in public.

There are important lessons here for understanding and measuring well-being,  in this context. In all the aforementioned Countries, religion appears to be an important underlying factor of people’s perceptions of their well-being and thus people’s level of spirituality may be as important or more important than material possessions. This is not surprising as evidence presented from studies in South Africa, Ethiopia and Bangladesh suggest that people’s conception of the ‘good life’ is influenced in part by their religion.

There are epistemological, ethical and methodological concerns here. How reliable and valid are people’s accounts of their quality of life? Should we accept on face value what people tell us about their well-being? How do we know on which side of the equation their bias really lays (between ‘faith’ and ‘reality’)? What are the ethical implications of asking people how their lives really are (invasion of privacy, potency for reigniting unpleasant emotions, potentially embarrassing, etc)? What kinds of responses do we expect to get (their true expression of their reality? Socially constructed perspectives of ideal reality? Or what they think we expect them to say?).

Standardised measures appear to ask similar questions to the ones asked by ordinary people on daily basis, or don’t they? Take questions of satisfaction with life as a whole (eg. How Life? – or how is your life); or domain satisfactions: ‘how work?’ (How is work?); health related questions: ‘how bodi?’ (how is your health or literally body?), etc. These questions appear similar to those related to domain satisfactions, global life satisfaction and perhaps happiness. Ceteris paribus these different formations could provide valuable insight into the quality of life in these societies.

Representative national polls or surveys of life satisfaction or happiness using standardised formats of these questions could prove useful in advancing measurement of well-being in these contexts. The advantage of a pidgin English measurement tool is that since it will be understood by a significant number of people when compared to standard English measures, it could amplify the potential to reach a more representative sample. Secondly, time series data could be generated in this way, to provide in conjunction with other sources of data, some understanding of the relationship between macro-economic indicators and well-being in these countries. Much work has been done in the United States (beginning with the Easterlin paradox in 1974) and elsewhere (with OECD and national level efforts across Europe and Asia) in these matters. ‘How you dey’ could provide baseline data upon which further work can be done.

Adapted from an earlier version posted on December 1, 2010, at