Friday, March 19, 2010

How Are You?

It's a funny phrase. It is one most people hear several times a day. Very rarely does it seem that people actually mean it and want to hear how you are really doing.

It can be a greeting to which you are not obliged to answer. It can be a question that people want a short, happy answer to. It can be a question that people ask with good intentions, but end up not caring about your answer. And then there are the few people who ask it as a genuine question, and listen to your answer to the end.

Then there is the trouble of how to answer, if at all. As noted in a travel guide, when used as a greeting in the United States, it is acceptable to not answer but to continue on with your life or jump directly into the conversation. It is also acceptable to answer with a quick, one word answer and then ask the same question of your companion.

If you feel that a person is asking in a genuine way, you can answer. You can answer with an abrigded version of your life, perhaps with the more unpleasant features left out. Or you can sit down and have a real conversation with the asker.

Being sick, I hear this question often, to the point of ad nauseum. Normally I answer with a small smile and an "okay". Some people (like neighbors) seem to accept this and move on, feeling that their duty to be friendly and concerned has been fulfilled. I don't begrudge them this small, everyday courtsey (or what they may consider a courtsey). I am sure I have been guilty of doing the same thing.

Some people seem more converned and give me a questioning look. I may go into more detail about how I'm doing, but I still leave out the gory details. I have found that no matter how caring a person may be, the vast majority of people just do not want to hear about the bad stuff.

If I do open up, it tends to be a really good conversation-ender. People may feel awkward around me, or not know what to say. They may not have wanted to know all this in the first place, merely because they are not interested, or because they don't want to hear about more pain besides their own. (Becuase everyone, after all, has their own pain.)

I have concluded that it is easier, and nicer, to keep my answers short and relatively upbeat. I do not lie, but I do not tell the whole truth, either.

The strange thing is, after coming to this conclusion, I still ask the question of many people I run into. It is a social custom, above everything else, more than a true desire to know about another person's life. I like to think, however, that I am more receptive to an honest response than I used to be, if that is what people want to give.

For myself, it is also easier to not answer this questin fully. It makes me think about my life and the amount of pain (physical and otherwise) that I carry around. I only give the full answer to people I trust completely, and the rest of the time, I hope that they understand. I don't like to dwell.

So there is a balance to strike: between asking too much and not caring about the answer and not asking at all because you don't want to hear or don't want to burden the other person.

Whatever the balance, I encourage you to ask this question only when you care about the truthful answer you may receive.


Jessica said...

This is a really great post. and its something that gets to me sometimes to. thanks for posting!!

Anonymous said...


This post made me sad as I realize how often I ask how you are doing and how hard it is for you to be truthful in answering. I do want to know and ,yes, it is hard to hear that you aren't doing well, but I still want to know. Even though I can't do anything to change your health, at least I can make contact and let you know I care. Perhaps, in a small way, that can help you feel just a little bit better about your day.