Is "How did you sleep?" like "How are you?"
July 16, 2016 9:12 AM   Subscribe

I just got back from a long vacation which was mostly great. I stayed with friends in a few places and at AirBnBs or hotels in a few other places. A lot of morning conversations over coffee included some aspect of "How did you sleep?" and I'm not sure how to politely answer that question.

I am not the world's greatest sleeper. I'm managing my sleep hygiene pretty well most of the time but sometimes I sleep terribly. Sometimes this is because of how/where I was sleeping, but often it's because of something else (anxiety, sensory processing, didn't get enough exercise, ate funny). I move on, don't dwell on it, and it's mostly fine. So when someone asks this, I'm often not sure what to say because the question seems more specific than "How are you?" I am good at answering basic questions like "How are you?" with "Fine, and you?" or "Getting better!" or variations of correct-but-polite answers but I'm not sure what to do with this one and I'd like to be less awkward about it.

When you ask this, if you ask this, are you wondering

- How are you feeling this morning?
- How were the accommodations, could we improve them?
(when I ask, which I rarely do, this is what I am asking and I ask it more directly)
- Idle conversation starters.
- Literally "How did you sleep?" to which my answer might be "Not so great" but I don't want someone to feel bad about this since it's just part of the background noise of my life to me

If you get asked this, do you have an answer that feels honest? I usually have some variant of "Pretty well I really liked the balbity bla aspect of the guestroom..." but sometimes I feel like saying "Not great, the room was 80 degrees and the basement pump kept me up all night despite my earplugs and white noise machine"

I know this is a lot of words for a simple issue; its really a "Just wondering" sort of thing, not something that's bugging me. Thanks for feedback.
posted by jessamyn to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The second one.
posted by kapers at 9:18 AM on July 16, 2016 [7 favorites]

When I am a host and say this, I mean "How were the accommodations, could we improve them?" For example, we keep our house at a certain temperature overnight but it might not be to our guest's liking. I usually follow up with something like "Was the temperature okay?" since it might be hard for a guest to blurt out "It was too hot".

I guess I don't expect a detailed response, even to my real question, since people often refrain from mentioning small things that could be improved out of politeness, but I feel that as a host it is the polite thing for me to do to give them the opportunity.
posted by dfan at 9:20 AM on July 16, 2016 [9 favorites]

The first one.
posted by Caskeum at 9:21 AM on July 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I ask overnight guests because I really do want to know if my preparations were comfy enough. Was the room too warm/cold/futon too lumpy/cat scratching at door/fan needed, etc. If I could do anything to make their stay more pleasant I would like to know. So I ask because I want my guests to feel at home with me.

If I'm staying at a friend or family's place, I'll answer as politely and honestly as I would with any social pleasantry and say I slept fine, thanks, and then talk about plans for the day. In fact, I have asked friends about where they got their pillows and duvet covers since I found them so comfortable.

As far as an Air BNB, if there were issues with the room/bed, I would definitely tell the owner.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:24 AM on July 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think it is a fairly common experience that people don't always sleep well in new places so part of the impetus in asking that question is empathizing with you that you might not be as well rested as you'd like. This is especially true if your friends know about your sleeping troubles.

A simple truthful dodge is something like, "Not well but I often don't in new places". I wouldn't hesitate to mention specifics to correct if they seem easy to correct or in the case of hotel/AirBnB since they should trying to accommodate you.
posted by mmascolino at 9:26 AM on July 16, 2016 [7 favorites]

In addition to literally meaning "how can we improve the accommodations", I also know that travel can mean reduced sleep due to jetlag or stress. So I also want to know if (for example) they got up at 4am due to a time difference so I can plan on making an early night of it the following evening to give them a chance to catch up.
posted by nev at 9:29 AM on July 16, 2016 [9 favorites]

Sometimes I'll answer "okay!" in a cheerful way to avoid inviting further inquiries while indicating that my sleep was just fine. I think that threads the "correct but polite" needle.

I recently had guests and they just said later in the day "so you get a lot of ambulances on your street?" I'm slow so I didn't realize the implication but my husband did so I made a mental note to stick a white noise machine in the second bedroom next time they visit or get them earplugs. So maybe if you had feedback that's earnest but could be misconstrued as critical, you could bring it up later in the day ("do you happen to have a fan I could use? I sleep with a fan on at home - something about the air circulation and the white noise helps me sleep better.")
posted by kat518 at 9:30 AM on July 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

The first one and "small talk"
posted by tristeza at 9:33 AM on July 16, 2016

I've never slept on my guest bed; I want to know if it's okay, or if it needs to be improved. Some of my houseguests are far too nice and would never complain, so I'm trying to politely pry the information out of them.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:37 AM on July 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've never slept on my guest bed; I want to know if it's okay, or if it needs to be improved. Some of my houseguests are far too nice and would never complain, so I'm trying to politely pry the information out of them.

Me too. I ask about 75% for #1 and 25% for #2. I want to make sure my guest is comfortable and if there's anything we can change to make my guest happier. I value good sleep above just about everything else in my own life, and that goes double for traveling. Happy sleep = a better visit for everyone. (And if the guest didn't sleep well, I will often modify the plans for the day in case they're feeling pretty whomped.)
posted by mochapickle at 9:41 AM on July 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am wondering how a guest slept to gauge what they might need, both in terms of changes to actual sleeping accommodations, but also what they need that morning and the rest of the day in terms of activities, energy levels, food and drink, conversation vs. quiet time, that kind of thing. I want to know if they are feeling great and ready to do whatever, or if they might need something more mellow. Asking how they slept is also an opportunity to see how they are doing more generally.
posted by nanook at 9:45 AM on July 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

This is contextual (like most things) but as a bad sleeper I usually assume that it's "were the accommodations acceptable for you because we like you and want you to come back" if the person asking is the host. If the person asking has no control over where I slept the night before, I assume they're asking "how are you feeling", further, if they're my friend they know I am a terrible sleeper so they're gauging how up I'll be for our planned activities that day. That changes my response from "fine, and you?" to "eeeehhh, you know me, I'll need at least two pastries before functioning today but then I'll be fine!"

As a host when I've asked this it is definitely me asking if the accommodations were okay. I tend not to ask about sleep specifically otherwise since I know how much of a minefield it can be.
posted by Mizu at 9:46 AM on July 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

For me it would be out of concern because people often sleep badly in a different place. Plus if they are visitors they might have jet lag or whatever. Also what nanook said.
posted by BibiRose at 9:46 AM on July 16, 2016

seems to me it could be any of the above, depending on context. perhaps it's interesting to ask if this question is more common in some parts of the usa (i am guessing) than others, as polite conversational noise? my wild guess is that NE usa is kind-of up-tight about anything that comes close to being personal, more so than other areas of the country, which might help explain things. but i'm no expert.
posted by andrewcooke at 9:46 AM on July 16, 2016

Sometimes it is code for "was the room comfortable?", sometimes it is basically "how are you?", and sometimes it is actually asking about sleep.

For me, the first gets answered with a nice comment about the accommodations, the second with the same "fine" that goes with "how are you?", and the last with an answer that varies in specificity by situation -- sometimes people really do want to talk about sleep hygiene and quality.

I usually sleep terribly and have worse insomnia while traveling, so I am careful to try not to make any answer about poor sleeping sound like a criticism of the accommodations, especially if I am staying at someone's house.

I guess this isn't much of an answer, but it's a question that can carry the full range of meanings you list, and the only way to know how to answer is to correctly parse out what someone means based on tone and context.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:49 AM on July 16, 2016

I might ask a friend how they slept as a less mentally taxing morning greeting rather than, "What do you want to do today?"
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 10:04 AM on July 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I ask people this mostly because I want to plan appropriately. If it's a fixable problem with the guest space I want to fix it. If it means we should plan an afternoon nap or an early night, that's useful to know.

I am really picky about beds, and sometimes it can't be fixed (then I just sleep in the floor). If I don't want to answer in more detail, the I go with "ok" or "oh, like usual." I like the second because it isn't falsely positive, but hopefully indicates that the host shouldn't worry about it.
posted by nat at 10:13 AM on July 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

It depends mostly on our relationship.

Close friends or family: seriously, how did you sleep, is my guest room ok? Can I fix anything for you? Really, I want you to come back. I tried it out but I don't know if the guest room is really right.

Guests I don't really know: I am making small talk and I'm going to assume you won't say anything unless it's a serious house malfunction issue, like it was so cold you had to sleep in your coat. I'll be gracious if you say anything other than "fine, thanks" but I will privately freak out about it. I will follow this up with "what's the plan for today?" and this is an actual question, I do expect to have a practical conversation about when I should be home, do they need anything, etc.

I was raised with the probably-unhealthy idea that anything but positive feedback as a guest was casting a deep shame on your host (outside of immediate family members) because they are presumably offering you their best attempt at hospitality. I am trying to change this attitude; some people apparently have much more chill about guests. I don't currently rent out my space, but if I did, I would probably be asking so I could make sure you were happy and not about to leave me a bad review.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:18 AM on July 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I just ask it because other people have asked me, so I figure it's a thing I'm supposed to ask. I assume I'm asking a question that is a combination of all the options you listed, and I just roll with whatever people tell me.
posted by aniola at 10:36 AM on July 16, 2016

As other have said, a lot of this is contextual. In some cases, it will be - Idle conversation starters. because sleep is a pretty universal and not horribly sensitive topic.

I recommend that in cases where you are unsure of their motive you just view this through the lens of "What would I like this conversation to be about?" If they were your Air BnB host and you would like to point out a problem with the room, you have your opening. If they are a friend and you feel like divulging personal info, hey, kvetch about "Oh, you know me. Sleep was Meh, as usual. (Blather on about whatever you feel like.)"

Come up with a few stock phrases to address typical scenarios in a manner that you feel comfortable with so you do not have to think too much, since just waking up can be a time when we aren't ready to think fast on our feet. But wonder more what you wish to communicate than what they are really asking.
posted by Michele in California at 10:40 AM on July 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

If I would ask this, it would be because of your second option, minus the "improve" thing (unless I'm directly and personally responsible for selecting the place and didn't sleep that great myself).

If someone asked me this, and I didn't sleep well in an otherwise fine environment, I'd say, "well, so-so, but that's me, don't worry. The room is great." Just to be sure the other person doesn't belong to your fourth option.

Regarding "idle conversation": It is not the topic as such that shows you wether someone indulges in idle conversation or not. It's some people who tend to misuse common topics of human interaction for idle conversation.
posted by Namlit at 11:02 AM on July 16, 2016

I read it as similar to hosts asking you how a meal was...if it was great, I say so, if not, I'll lie, unless we're extremely close.
I'm a terrible sleeper, so most of my answers are fairly anodyne, unless we were smashed the night before, in which case the usual War Stories rules apply.
posted by Kreiger at 11:29 AM on July 16, 2016

Basically the second, and then the first.
"Sounds like you were kinda cold. Let me get you a couple more warm blankets for tonight!"
posted by artdrectr at 11:32 AM on July 16, 2016

I am mostly asking if the accommodations were okay or if I can do anything to improve them, if I have the power to do so. Otherwise I'm mostly asking to find out who I'm dealing with today: Feeling Normal You or Can't Even You.

I am also a poor sleeper and I moderate my response accordingly. If I did about as well as could have been expected, I say I slept fine. If I'm really wrecked, I'll mildly indicate that. If I heard creepy hellbeast noises outside my window in the night, or the sound of water running/dripping, or similar anomalies, I'll report it.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:51 AM on July 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

Otherwise I'm mostly asking to find out who I'm dealing with today: Feeling Normal You or Can't Even You.

Likewise. If I were a host, I'd also want to know if there was anything I could fix. But this is what I'm trying to get out of the answer. If someone is visiting, I want to know, are they up for a big day, or do they want to keep it chill? So in that spirit, I don't mind hearing a negative answer, I just want to know for the sake of communication.

If it was a total stranger asking me, I'd probably either lie or tell them if there was something concrete that needed to be fixed.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:34 PM on July 16, 2016

If I recall correctly, there are some African cultures in which this question is absolutely the standard polite question you ask everyone socially. But in the U.S., I think that from a host, it means "were the accommodations comfortable?" and from a friend/family member, it's just an indirect way of asking how you're feeling. From a random stranger, it's just random small talk and definitely doesn't require a real answer.
posted by praemunire at 12:40 PM on July 16, 2016

In my case it's 1, 2, and 4, but not really 3. And 4 only because I myself suffer from sleep problems in general, and the first night in a new bed/room/place is always an issue over and above the usual level. If you're my guest and there's anything I can do to help you sleep better, I'd like to know about it.
posted by fedward at 12:51 PM on July 16, 2016

The second/the first. If you're staying in my house, I want you to sleep as well as you can. I'd feel horrible if I found out you didn't sleep well because you were freezing, or you needed more pillows, or our neighbors' security lights were shining right into your window, or you were hungry. (Once upon a time somebody stayed at our place and didn't tell us that the shower in the guest bathroom wasn't producing hot water, and I still cringe every time it crosses my mind.) So I really, really want to know about that kind of thing. And since I have sleep issues myself, I want to know how you're feeling so we can have appropriate levels of fun the rest of the day--so I guess kind of a combination of 1 and 4 for that. For me as a guest in a friend or family member's home, if I just slept my normal crappy quality sleep, I would answer "Fine" or "Pretty good."

When my in-laws asked me this question the first time I stayed over there, 2-1-4 is what they meant, too. I eventually said something like "Pretty good! The windchimes and the clock woke me up a couple of times, but I guess I'm just not used to them!" ("Pretty good" was not entirely accurate; I just didn't want them to feel bad.)

And they immediately and cheerfully took down the windchimes temporarily and set the clock not to chime.
posted by wintersweet at 12:57 PM on July 16, 2016

Dip Flash said:
"I usually sleep terribly and have worse insomnia while traveling, so I am careful to try not to make any answer about poor sleeping sound like a criticism of the accommodations, especially if I am staying at someone's house."

This! A superb non-answer answer to questions like these that my dad used was, "Pas mal. Merci?" Basically, "Not bad. Thanks." Meaning: not bad, but not great either, but I don't really want to get into it right now or give a more detailed answer, so... Not bad. Thanks!

Then I usually just toss it back to the speaker with a big smile and a "how about you?" (If I answered "How'd you sleep?" truthfully every time someone asked me, I'd sound like the world's biggest grump, so I treat it the same as someone asking "How are you?")

If I'm a guest in someone's home, I go out of my way to not be fussy about anything unless it's a serious problem. However, if I'm paying for the accommodations, I have no problem asking for an extra pillow, or for the temperature to be adjusted in my room or to change rooms if the one I'd been given smelled musty/moldy, etc. If I'm at a bed and breakfast or an air b'n'b, I try to casually pull the host aside later and make my requests discretely -- away from the ears of the other guest -- rather than across the breakfast table.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 1:29 PM on July 16, 2016

I ask because it's an easy question first thing in the morning. It doesn't mean much, but, if there were a huge problem I would want to know about it when it was happening--so speak up in the middle of the night--rather than wait until morning to talk about environmental discomforts. Most people want their guests to be happy not polite so please do your best to examine your environmental needs in the evening rather than wait till morning to give a negative report. Otherwise, I would consider you slept fine and it's just a polite question.
posted by waving at 1:55 PM on July 16, 2016

I say this! The way I mean this is "Person I care about, how are you doing this morning? Traveling is not always comfortable, is there anything that would make you more comfortable which I can feasibly control?"

You can absolutely answer it in a general fashion - I frequently say "Well, thanks!" to family members with whom I know there isn't any other option than their crappy guest bed that dates back to the Reagan administration. If there is a concrete thing they could do to improve your sleep experience (e.g., if they actually have a/c, but it wasn't on) tell them that. Something like "I slept ok, but I was pretty hot - would it be possible to turn on the air tonight?"

I agree with folks up post if it is really bad - please wake me up. I'd like to know immediately so I can do something about it. But the reason I'm asking is to express the fact that I care about you and would like you to be comfortable.
posted by arnicae at 2:20 PM on July 16, 2016

This feels a little silly to write out, but when I say it I mean "I missed you, and I hope that chunk of time we didn't spend together went okay."

If I'm just your day-to-day friend, I won't normally ask you this because, well, my seeing you is an exception rather than a norm. But if you're crashing, even just for a night -- well, now we sort of live together, and it's sweet to play with that sort of language and intimacy for a moment.
posted by harperpitt at 3:14 PM on July 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I always ask people this when they stay at my house because of your #2 - I always want to know if they were comfortable, and if not if there is anything I can do to make them more comfortable. It's solicitousness. And maybe a dollop of politeness.
posted by biscotti at 3:51 PM on July 16, 2016


If we are close (have slept in the same place before, perhaps being a general rule) I am genuinely concerned about you and want an honest answer for any number of reasons - I want to fix anything that's fixable about your sleeping situation, I want to know what kind of day we're probably going to have, I'm just generally interested in your condition.

If we are not close, it's mostly a pleasantry, but I wouldn't be offended by a request to change something.

If I were for some reason hosting you for money (ala AirBNB) I would definitely be looking to make sure the accommodations were satisfactory, and to change anything about them that wasn't.

Being asked:

I also do not have a good relationship with sleep, and typically don't sleep well. I don't like to tell people this because it's one of those things that causes people to spout off for hours with advice and I've been like this my whole life, trust me, I've probably tried whatever you're about to suggest and don't want to hear about it.

If we are close and you are hosting me, I will probably be honest about it (because you probably already know I'm shit at sleeping) and request anything that would make things easier.

If we are not close and you are hosting me I am probably already very uncomfortable with that situation and will either lie ("Great, thanks! How about you?") or handwave ("Same as usual!").

If I am paying for my lodging I will note something I like about the lodging ("Mostly, yeah, the cat came and slept at the foot of my bed, that was so nice") and request anything I think will improve the next night, if there is going to be a next night. ("It was a little chilly though, I was wondering if you had any more blankets on hand.")
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 7:04 PM on July 16, 2016

Quality Control.

But if the host is friendly, it could lead to an interesting convo before ya hit the road. ("Oh, I forgot to mention that bed came from Svalbard! Thats why it was so chilly even when you used all the blankets we had." HEY I VISITED SVALBARD TOO NOWAI!)
posted by not_on_display at 8:35 PM on July 16, 2016

When my family who is hosting me asks, I interpret it as, "I love you and care about you and I hope you had a good night of sleep." I usually answer it positively to affirm that I love them, too, and I understand they care about me.

I don't consciously remember asking houseguests this question, but it's totally possible I have, due to family upbringing. I would use it as a conversation starter (my cats can be assholes, and my current housing set-up does not let guests block them from their bed, so I would want to make sympathetic noises if my cats kept them up and pleased noises if my cats kept them company in a non-sleep-disturbing way), an opening to hear any requests for things my guests needed, an opening to hear any requests that we tone down plans because the guest slept badly, and an opening to apologize if I was snoring or did something to disturb my guest's sleep.
posted by lazuli at 8:54 PM on July 16, 2016

I always just say, "Fine." When someone stays with me, I just ask them if the room was Goldilocks or not. Asking how someone slept seems odd if what you really want to know was was the temp ok or enough blankets, etc. If there is an issue with a loud A/C or a sump pump, I just give them a heads up, "The A/C rattles sometimes when it kicks in. Have yet to find a solution. Apologies."

So, when someone asks me, I take them at face value and to be polite, regardless of how I really slept, I just say fine.
posted by AugustWest at 9:38 PM on July 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just had a close friend staying at my place for a week, in my photography studio I'd hastily converted to a guest room. I asked her this every morning, because I wanted to know if she was comfortable in spite of the room not being set up as a bedroom; she was coming from a different time zone; and I wanted to know what I could fix; and I wanted to gauge her energy levels for the day. Turns out that my having left the window cracked, meant that she could hear the hiss of the sprinklers coming on, and she dreamt that she was being attacked by a snake. I felt like such a dumbass for having left the window open. Hosting fail.
posted by culfinglin at 11:46 PM on September 17, 2016

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