"How goes it?" is the easy one. Until we talked about it last week, I thought there was only one answer, and that was, "It goes." timprov says you actually can go out on a limb and say "well" or "poorly." But for the most part, this is your Minnesotan phrase book: "How goes it?" "It goes." Intonation can matter here, but it doesn't have to, really. This is the conversational equivalent of pinging the other person.
(This is slightly different if there is a specific "it" in question -- if you are at work and the boss has given you a project specifically for today, if you are out in the yard digging up a dead bush, if you are fixing a friend's computer, etc. Then you are being asked for a project appraisal: it goes slowly, it goes quickly, I cut off your phone line with the shovel, your hard drive is a total loss, etc.)
"How are you?" or "How're you doing?" is a little different. It invites a short answer. Now, if you go over to a friend's house and plunk yourself down on the couch, and your friend says, "So. How are you?", you are perfectly well justified in saying, "Oh, work is driving me nuts and I think I have a wisdom tooth coming in crooked, but we're going over to the St. Croix to stay in a bed and breakfast in a couple of weekends when the leaves are turning" and blah blah blah. It is the start to the sort of conversation you would usually have with your friend. You can talk for hours upon hours with friends, embroidering on the theme of how you mutually have been in various areas of your life. How have you been? Frustrated with the people in power in Louisiana. Enjoying the book you got from the library last week. Tired. Excited as a little kid about fall coming. Thrilled with your fresh garden tomatoes. On and on it can go: how you are is complicated and important. Your time with friends is much different, and you figure out with your friends what you like to talk about, over hours of conversation.
This is not the case with supermarket personnel. In fact, anyone whose name you only know because it's on a button on their shirt is not seeking that level of information. Anyone who only knows your name because they read it on your credit card does not want to start half an hour worth of conversation. Anyone with whom your main point in common is that you both went to the DMV over your lunch hour is unlikely to become your best friend. Many non-Minnesotans, upon finding out that casual acquaintances don't really want to hear the details, cry, "Why did they ask, if they don't really care how I'm doing?" But this is not the case. They do really care how you're doing. They just don't really want all the details.
Consider a case where your favorite aunt has just had surgery. There was a cancerous mass in her colon, and now there isn't, and she's recovering beautifully. No one would claim that you didn't care about your aunt if you didn't want to watch a video of the surgery. You can hit the high spots: did it go generally well, how is auntie feeling now, how long will she be in the hospital, how long will she be recovering after that. You do not need to see her exposed intestines in order to care about her well-being. People you don't know are like that; don't tell them how may units of blood auntie had to have replaced.
Your basic answers to "how are you?" questions from strangers and casual acquaintances are as follows:
Could be worse
Could be better.
To calibrate for you, how am I lately? I am gettin' by. Last spring when markgritter's grandmother died, I could have been better. Earlier this year when alpha readers actually liked Thermionic Night, I could have been worse. And should someone buy one of my books, I will find myself unable to complain that day. You will never have committed a social gaffe in answering one of those four things. (Okay, this is not true. If you are getting your hair done for your wedding and the hairstylist asks how you're doing, if the answer is "could be better," your spouse-to-be probably shouldn't hear it. But mostly you're safe.)
This is not hiding information. It is a somewhat different mode of communication than exists in some other places, but it is communication. Other Minnesota natives do not hear me say, "Gettin' by" and think, "She is doing pretty well. She must be having a good day."
I have a bagger at Byerly's who is "my" bagger -- I always go to his line if I have a reasonable choice, and if I don't go through his line when he's there, he makes sure to tell me to have a good day as I pass him on my way out. This is an older gent who took this job to supplement his retirement money and get out around people some days a week. He approves of my habit of bringing a book in my purse to read, and we've talked about some of those books a bit in passing. So if he asks how I'm doing, and I say I'm gettin' by, he will look a little concerned, and he will go out of his way to make sure my frozen foods are in little bags not to melt all over and my berries have little rubber bands keeping the plastic containers shut. He will do everything within his limits as my supermarket bagger to make my day a little easier. But he is not my best friend or my doctor or my shrink or my clergybeing. He is my supermarket bagger. If I start telling him about hemoglobin levels and MRIs, 1) we will hold up the entire line, and 2) we will be there all day, and 3) he won't be able to do a damn thing about it. If I tell him I'm merely "gettin' by," he will be concerned and hope I'm doing better soon. Which is all, really, one could ask of a supermarket bagger, and possibly more than one could reasonably expect.
(This is not because he is the store employee and I'm the customer. If I ask him -- which I do -- and he's "gettin' by," I'm also concerned, and there is still very little I can do about any genuine problems he has. It's symmetric that way.)
Those four answers are guaranteed safe answers. You don't have to sick to the safe ones. ladysea was saying that sometimes when she's out with all four kids and people ask that, she laughs kind of incredulously. This is a perfectly reasonable response, although it might lead the listener to suppose that the kids were capable of being a handful, which we all know is not true in this case. You can say something like, "Oh, your raspberries are gorgeous! I was going to make a cobbler, but I'm not sure I'll be able to keep from just eating them straight." This is part of how you're doing. Yes, only a part, but it's a part that makes for a short, pleasant conversation. You want to be able to wrap this up when your groceries are all ready to go. If you say, "I don't know how my siblings and I are going to convince Mom that she needs extra nursing care," that's a conversation that really deserves more than five minutes in the checkout line, more context, more nuance. It may be the main thing on your mind, but nobody has a quick answer for that, or if they do ("Break her leg! then she'll have to accept nursing care"), it's facetious and probably not helpful.
Sure, genuine friendships have started from that sort of casual conversation. My cousin married a waiter from the restaurant where her family celebrated her college graduation: "What are you celebrating tonight?" "I graduated college this weekend!" "Really? Me, too! What was your major?" "Elementary ed." "Really? Me, too! Do you have a job lined up?" "Yep, in Eden Prairie." "Really? Me, too!" And it went from there. But for the most part, this type of conversation makes the short time you are getting your meal, or standing in line at the post office with nothing to read, or in any casual social situation, pass more quickly. And that's what it's there for. It's not for the unburdening of souls. It's not for creative solutions to serious problems. It's just to smooth social edges.
(This is not the case for taciturn Minnesota introverts. Having to hear about raspberries can make some people want to go screaming bear shirt. Mostly the rest of us have learned to spot their gruff responses and not push the issue. You may join their ranks if you like. Cultivate monosyllables, and the rest of us will leave you alone and not tell you about our tomato garden.)
(On the other end of the scale is the Overcompensating Minnesotan.* The OM is always doing, "fanTAStic!", under the delusions that this will brighten other people's day.)
As for responding to other people's use of the four safe phrases, a pleased, "Good!" or "Good deal!" or "Well, hey!" is always appropriate in response to "could be worse" or "can't complain." A sympathetic, "Some days that's all you can do" is an appropriate answer to "gettin' by." "Could be better" gets a "sorry to hear that" or the like, and when you part company, "Hope things look up soon" or something like that.
What you're aiming at is pleasantness that's quick and doesn't demand that your listener fix things they have no control over.
More on the Overcompensating Minnesotan: I know several of this person, most of them female. They have heard from people from different cultures that Minnesotans are too stand-offish, and they want to fix it. But they don't actually speak those languages as natives. They squeeze people too long and too tight, which I define as "after the person in question has started squirming and trying to pull away." They end up overusing -- without sarcasm -- words like "fanTAStic" and "FABulous." They do not merely like anything, they always love it. Even if you haven't specified what it is yet. "Do you want something to drink?" "Love it." You don't know if you love it! What if my only options are antifreeze and fermented lemonade? Wait until you see what we have before you go loving it! It might not be fanTAStic!
And my current pet peeve from OMs: they overuse the phrase "there's nothing worse than." Just last week I read in the Strib that a woman had said to a Strib reporter, "There's nothing worse than overcrowded classrooms." I shouted, "Dysentery!" at the paper in tones of great cheer. Last week of all weeks: nothing worse than overcrowded classrooms? Come on, lady! One OM of my acquaintance has listed at least twenty health concerns than which there is nothing worse. I hope she's right, because two of them were anemia and wisdom tooth pain, and I got or am getting through those more or less all right (y'know, gettin' by, pretty much could be worse on those fronts), so if that's the worst life has to offer, hey, great! Somehow I'm skeptical, though.
But as I said, when a friend asks you, it's different, because you're not trying to be efficient and pleasant, you're trying to actually converse with your friend. So: how are you?