“How are you?”

Yesterday, I blew off a bit of steam with regard to something I hear people saying all too often. Today, I’m back at it again.

If everyone is so anxious to talk about their feelings every time they express an opinion, let’s consider how we all bandy about this simple little question: “How are you?”

There’s a question that actually asks you how you feel, giving you the perfect opportunity to talk all about it. Although I’ll gripe about starting off an opinion statement with, “I feel like…,” the old, familiar “How are you?” is one instance in which even I would have no problem with a response that begins with those words. After all, that’s what the person asking the question really wants to know: how you feel.

Or is it?

I’ve noticed—and I’m sure you have, too—that this question is rarely asked in search of an actual answer, and that it is still more rarely answered with a reply of any consequence. In most cases, “How are you?” has become just as meaningless as “What’s up?” or even a simple “Hello.”

Now, I am certainly not the first to notice the flat and flaccid nature of this three-word question. Apparently people have been asking each other this question (and not caring about the answer) for centuries. Consider this excerpt from Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (1855):

When one Esquimau [Eskimo] meets another, do the two, as an invariable rule, ask after each other’s health? Is it inherent in all human nature to make this obliging inquiry? Did any reader of this tale ever meet any friend or acquaintance without asking some such question, and did any one ever listen to the reply?

Judging from the frequency with which I see my own compatriots asking each other this essentially meaningless question, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Eskimos do it, as well. I was happy to see that Trollope identified the two main prongs of my own opinion on the matter: first, that asking the question has become almost instinctual or automatic; second, that no one really cares to hear the answer once the question has been asked. Invariably, this also leads to a third observation: because we know that the listener doesn’t really care, we don’t put much (if any) thought into our answer.

Perhaps you think I’m being harsh, especially if you’re someone who likes to ask the question frequently. Not care?! you huff, Why, of course I care. Wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t!

Not true, I say, not true. You know as well as I do that we ask this question as a simple knee-jerk response to encountering someone and having no other way to start off. Consider the following scenarios:

The telephone call: You answer the phone, and the caller generally announces herself even though everyone tacitly understands that caller ID has already made her identity clear. Your response? “Monique! How are you? It’s so good to hear from you!” You haven’t even given her the time to answer the question, really; it’s just a smooth and simple way to get from Point A to Point C.

The restaurant booth: Once you’re seated, your waiter approaches you and without fail asks after your health before launching into the specials of the day: “HihowareyoudoingtodaygreatmynameisFrankandI’llbeyourwaiterfortheeveningoursoupofthedayisFrenchonion.” Try and stop the runaway train if you dare! Occasionally, there are variations on this routine; my favorite is definitely, “And how are we doing today?” to which I almost always reply, “We’re doing fine, thank you; and how are we doing?” That always throws them for a loop.

The quick pass: There are several variations on this one, too, but this is by far the most common offender. Generally speaking it’s the sort of encounter that occurs in a place where two people are moving in opposite directions: across campus, down a hall, up and down stairs and escalators, in the supermarket aisle, etc.—in other words, places where people are passing and don’t really have time to converse. The maximum exchange here is four lines—A: “Hey, Linda!” B: “Hi, Ted; how are you?” A: “Fine, thanks; and you?” B: “Great!”—and by then you’ve already passed each other. However, we can pare it down to no more than one line—A: [waves] B: “Hey, Brad! How are you?”—and allow both parties to be on their way before A even has a chance to answer the question (if indeed he wanted to).

I’m sure that you’ve been on both ends of every scenario above (with the possible exception of working in a restaurant). If you don’t believe me, just choose a day (how about today?) and count the number of times you’re asked “How are you?” Then count how many times you do it yourself.

The answers we give are insipid at best, and at worst untrue. “Fine” and “Good” are the most commonly heard, while “Alright” and “OK” also feature prominently. When are we really any of those things? I have a friend who has a distinct aversion to “fine” and will never use it; I know someone else who invariably answers “Super deluxe!” But these are the exceptions—and while “super deluxe” may be a refreshing change of pace, it’s probably rarely the true answer.

Can you imagine what would happen if we answered the question truthfully and at length every time? “How are you, Nancy?” “Well, Ethel, I haven’t been able to sleep for the past three nights because Lou started sleeping on his back and now he snores like the dickens, and speaking of backs I could name five different spots where mine hurts right now but let me tell you, it’s not like when the kids were home, and now that they’re all off at school I almost don’t know what to do with myself and I get so lonely sometimes, so all in all not too good I guess… How about you?”

Poor Ethel wouldn’t know what hit her.

The truth is that, in most cases, we probably don’t really want all of that information—and if we knew we were going to get it, we probably wouldn’t ask. Based on the principle that words mean things, though, I would like to advocate for change. Using our responses to that question, let’s let people know that they shouldn’t ask us how we are unless they really want to know. You’ve heard of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? Well, this is called “Don’t Care? Don’t Ask.”

Give it a try! The next time that someone asks you how you’re doing, tell him the unmitigated truth. And if you think that this campaign is unrealistic—that everyone is just too private or shy to give the real answer to this simple question—then all I can say is that you may be right.

But if you’re right, then perhaps (at the very least) we can find something more meaningful to say when greeting people.

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