How was your break? HOW was your break? How WAS your break? How was YOUR break? How was your BREAK?
You can ask someone—a friend, a roommate, a hallmate, someone you met while partying on Pine during the snowstorm—this question in five different ways. But what does it all mean? What does the stress on each word convey? What does the questioner mean by asking this question and what are some acceptable responses? When is it okay and not okay to ask someone how hir break was?

Since you’re bound to ask this question dozens of times, it is important to consider the implications each stressed word carries. An emphasis on “How” indicates a high level of interest in the person’s activities over break. The questioner typically follows the question with other ones, probing for more details about the person’s break. “You went skiing? Nice. When? Where? Was it fun? How were the trails? Do you have a favorite trail? Are you a terrain park person? What’s your favorite trick?”

Stressing “was” establishes the fact that break is over and it’s time to move on in life. The questioner has more pressing issues at hand but only asks as a courtesy and is not remotely interested in your activities during the last five weeks.

For “your,” it is all about you. It is YOUR break. Stressing “your” is useful for conversations taking place in a large group or social gathering. Clearly that new acquaintance you made on Pine really wants to know more about you. Stressing “your” in the question immediately shifts the focus onto the person being questioned, leaving no time for you to come up with details that you cannot bullshit fast enough to cover up the fact that you spent your break watching Netflix and eating ice cream.

How was your BREAK? This is a rare sight indeed, for this is the sarcastic, air-quoted, elongated, “break.” The “break” could have been a few things that were not in fact a break. The questioned party could have had a job for the last five weeks, and merely had a break from academic responsibilities. Break could also be one wild party after another filled with debauchery and other things not suitable for the ears of people nearby. Thus, “break” is used to convey that the questioner knows the other person’s break was pretty crazy but cannot be discussed at the time.

So, what does your friend mean by asking, “How was your break?” For most people, the question represents a polite greeting following any break. The question becomes a formal version of “Hi, how are you?” and many people don’t want precise details of your vacation, but rather ask as a courtesy. Some people, as I mentioned earlier, do actually really care about how you spent your free time. These people represent a minority of the question-asking population.

The question is so ubiquitous that many people find it annoying. It’s like the questions anyone in college is likely to be pestered with at a family gathering. What are you studying? Seeing anyone lately? How’s the team doing? What field might you work in after graduating? Grad school? Each of these is a verbal jab to be dodged or answered quickly before retreating into a corner. A person can only take so many punches before tapping out. I believe that the question is another way of asking, “How are you?” or “What’s new?” I find that my friends are generally fine with answering these questions if I haven’t seen them recently. However, the question is asked so many times that it becomes annoying. Sadly, I have to wait until enough time passes for the question to fade.

When does the question lose its importance? By the time this article is published on February 3, a little over two weeks will have passed since the end of break. The question should not be asked after this day. In fact, the question shouldn’t be asked after the first week of classes. By having a week of acceptable question-asking, everyone can reconnect with all of their friends—in addition to having conversation material for weekends out. After a week, the question loses its relevance and instead becomes annoying.

Finally, how should you respond to the question? The first few times will likely be in great detail as the question is still new and worthy of conversation. As time wears on, the question becomes a nuisance. Right around four or five days into the first week of classes, a simple answer such as “good” will suffice.

Overall, understanding the question is very important. You could be like me, and have three more winter breaks in the future. You need to be prepared and act accordingly over the next few years. For everyone else, vacation is not limited to schools. You will have a vacation at some point in the real world, and someone is bound to ask you how it went. You are now prepared.

Stephen McCarthy is a member of the class of 2018.

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