Unraveling the Mystery of “What Are You Up To?”: A Guide for English Learners

Grover Laughtonreviewed byIryna Andrus / more about Editorial Process7 min
Created: May 1, 2023Last updated: Feb 1, 2024
What you up to meaning

Ah, the mysterious world of idiomatic expressions! In any language, idioms and colloquialisms can be fascinating and perplexing, especially for those learning the language. But fear not! Once you unlock the secrets of these phrases and sayings, they can add color and flavor to your language skills. One such phrase is “What are you up to?” Often used in informal settings, this expression can leave non-native speakers scratching their heads. 

Luckily, we’re here to help you understand the meaning of What are you up to. We'll provide an overview of the different contexts in which this phrase is used and explain its various meanings. Also, we’ll explore how you can respond to this question, giving you more confidence in your conversational skills.

What Is The Meaning of What Are You Up To

On the surface, “What are you up to?” may seem straightforward. It is a question someone might ask out of curiosity or as an icebreaker in casual situations. However, its meaning can depend on context and emphasis. Here are four ways to use this expression:

As a Greeting or Icebreaker

In its most basic sense, What are you up to means “What’s up?” or “What are you doing at the moment?”. This version of the question is commonly used as a greeting among friends, family members, or acquaintances. 

It’s often asked in an informal setting to open up a conversation or to show interest in the other person’s current activities. The question may be accompanied by a smile or a joking tone, emphasizing that it’s simply meant as an icebreaker and doesn’t necessarily require too much detail in response.

A: “Hey, Sarah! What are you up to today?”

B: “Not much, just running some errands. How about you?”

Asking about Someone’s Plans

Asked casually in a text message, “what are u up to” means the asker is curious about the other person’s plans or activities. The person might seek more specific information regarding your schedule and commitments in this context. The emphasis shifts from a general inquiry into what one has been doing recently to knowing if you’re available.

This version of the question is often posed via a text message, email, or phone call when someone wants to know if you’re free for a hangout, date night, or business meeting. The emphasis here might be on particular & specific days.

A: “Hey, John! What are you up to tomorrow evening?”

B: “Nothing much planned yet. Why do you ask?”

The Way to Catch Up

“What are you up to?” can also be about catching up on recent activities or events. In this context, the question implies an interest in learning what someone has been doing since you last saw them. Such a question often comes with greater detail and may reflect that the audience is interested in knowing more.

This version of the question often comes up when you haven’t spoken to someone in a while, and they might want an update on how things have been going recently. The emphasis here is more on events that started in the past but are continuing until now.

A: “Hey, Mary! Long time no see. What have you been up to these days?”

B: “I’ve been busy with work lately, but I managed to take some vacation last month.”

To Playfully Suggest Mischief or Trouble

There is yet another context where What are you up to means playfully suggesting mischief or trouble. In this case, the question implies that something seems fishy about what one has been doing recently – and it can be accompanied by skepticism, disbelief, or curiosity.

The emphasis here lies on spotting some catch or hidden agenda that the other person might not want to reveal. But, again, it’s a playful way of teasing someone who may be up to no good.

A: “Mark, what are you up to? Planning to steal the last slice of pizza again?”

B: “No, no… I promise this time it’s all yours. Unless you don’t want it?”


Common Responses to What Are You Up To

Now that you’re familiar with the different contexts in which “What are you up to?” can be used, let’s dive into some common responses. When someone asks you a question, it’s normal to give a short and polite answer unless they ask for more details. 

Here are some typical responses that'll help keep the conversation flowing:

  • “Not much” or “Not a lot”

These phrases are perfect for when you don’t have much going on or would rather keep your activities to yourself. They convey a sense of ease and are appropriate for casual conversations. For example, you might follow them up with questions to keep the conversation flowing.

A: “Hey, John! What are you up to?”

B: “Not much, just hanging out. What about you?”

  • “Just...” (followed by a brief description)

When you’re willing to share a bit about your current activities, you can respond with a short sentence that describes what you are doing. It shows you’re open to discussing current activities while keeping things brief. It’s best to keep the description of your activities short unless someone specifically asks for more details.

A: “Hey, Emily! What are you up to?”

B: “Just doing some work on my computer. You?”

  • “Busy with...” (followed by a task or project)

If you’re in the middle of something, it’s perfectly acceptable to mention that you’re busy. This lets the person know you might not be available for a lengthy chat but are open to a brief exchange.

A: “Hey, Max! What are you up to?”

B: “Busy with a report for work. How’s your day going?”

  • “Actually, I’m going to...” (followed by a destination or activity)

Sometimes you might have activities planned that are interesting enough to share. In those cases, an excellent response would be to mention where you’re headed and what’s taking up your time.

A: “Hey, Ashley! What are you up to?”

B: “Actually, I’m getting ready for a yoga class in half an hour. How about later joining me for coffee?”

These are common responses to “What are you up to?” with varying levels of detail depending on how much information you want to provide. But remember, it’s always good etiquette not only to answer but also to ask back what they’re doing or if there’s any news from their end!

Discover The What You Up To Meaning with Promova

Are you a non-native English speaker struggling with common idiomatic expressions like “What are you up to?” Look no further, as Promova is here to provide clarity and help boost your conversational skills. 

Our speaking classes are designed to help learners of all levels enhance their proficiency in English and create a more polished, confident approach to communication. Plus, the Conversation Club we offer starts a welcoming community for individuals to practice speaking with each other and receive feedback from a certified tutor.

And if you wish to master other aspects of the language, our range of courses and resources covers everything from grammar to speaking and pronunciation. In addition, our language platform offers personalized online sessions with expert tutors catering to your needs and learning style. They'll provide a tailored learning experience and ensure the lessons are engaging, interactive, and easy to follow.


Now you know the Whatcha up to meaning and the different contexts in which it can be used. Whether someone is simply greeting you or trying to catch up with what’s been happening recently – there are multiple ways the question might be asked based on its underlying intention.

While answering this question, don’t forget that a short but polite response usually works best unless someone asks for more details. And ask back about their day as well! So don’t hesitate – go ahead & embrace your new-found knowledge of this idiom and use it to spark interesting conversations.


What other idioms are similar to “What are you up to?” that I should learn?

Some other common idioms you might encounter include “How’s it going?”, “What’s new?”, “What’s the word?” and “What’s cooking?”. Each of these expressions serves a similar purpose in starting a conversation and inquiring about someone’s current activities or well-being.

Can I use “What are you up to?” in formal situations or with people I don’t know well?

While “What are you up to?” is generally considered informal, its appropriateness depends on the context and tone of voice. Usually, it’s best to stick to more formal language in professional or formal settings, such as “What are you working on?” or “How has your day been?”

What are the common mistakes non-native speakers make when using “What are you up to?” or similar phrases?

Some common mistakes include using the phrase in inappropriate settings, misinterpreting the context or tone, or responding too formally or in too much detail. Practice and exposure to native speakers can help you overcome these challenges and become more adept at using idiomatic expressions.

How can I improve my understanding of idiomatic expressions and their meanings?

One way to enhance your understanding of idioms is by studying them in context, through conversations with native speakers, movies, TV shows, or books. You can also use language-learning resources like Cambridge Dictionary or The Free Dictionary to search for specific idioms and their definitions.


PromovaMar 19th, 2024
The phrase "What are you up to?" is typically used in casual settings among friends, family members, or acquaintances. It is often used when initiating conversation or expressing interest in someone's activities.
Kit CoxMar 19th, 2024
when is it appropriate to use the phrase in conversation?
Janae Aug 10th, 2023
nice article 😊