The simple question ‘How are you?’ is a difficult one. Over recent years we’ve all been told it's one we should be asking more often, checking in on friends to make sure they’re ok and showing your love and support in difficult times. The problem for me is that ‘how are you?’ is already something we all use, but usually not in the right way.
‘How are you?’ should be a gateway for us to learn about the struggles of our loved ones, listen to our friends vent about their stressful days at work or hear how someone is struggling to overcome something in their lives. We could then follow this with some support, an offer of assistance, motivation or just simply listening in order to help our conversational counterparts. In this scenario ‘how are you?’ is a powerful tool and it’s completely right that it has been encouraged. After all, someone taking the time to listen to your problems could be just what you need on a certain day, just as you offering support to someone else could be just what they need.
So, what is my problem you ask? Well I’ve been taking note recently, and I have to say about 95% of the time I encounter a ‘how are you?’ it does not occur in this way. As I’m sure is true for most of us, the majority of the time we hear the question it takes place in a much more fleeting scenario, a simple greeting to someone you sort of know as you pass in the street with no intention of stopping. I find myself wondering as I get asked recently what the right way to answer the question truly is. Every time I have been asked it seems that ‘no’ isn’t really the way to go; even if I have had the worst day ever the person passing me by clearly in a rush to be somewhere doesn’t want to hear that answer because then they can’t continue with their day, and I’m not sure it’s an answer I want to give. Do I really want to stop this person and have to explain the context behind ‘no’? Even if the person asking is more genuine with their question, or you are in a setting of a longer conversation ‘no’ still seems like an inappropriate answer. Do I want to trouble this person with my issues? Do they really want to know? By the time all this has gone through your head you can hear yourself helplessly uttering ‘Fine, you?’.
So what about the other way, an ecstatic ‘Yes! Amazing!’. Well this to me seems just as bad. The issue is that this year I have suffered the loss of my father, and with everything else going on in 2020 no one expects me to say yes, and that’s mainly because it isn’t the truth. So when someone does ask I then feel awkward saying I am great, or happy. What do they think of me saying I’m fine with everything that has happened? Even if I wasn’t going through a difficult time I’m not sure I’d jump to an excited ‘Oh my gosh I’m amazing’ when asked because it doesn’t seem appropriate. What if the person asking isn’t okay and I’ve just made them feel completely worse by bragging about how great things with me are? Again, by the time you’ve had this discussion with yourself the word ‘fine’ has already escaped your lips.
This is my problem with the ‘how are you’ question. With the loss of my father every time I get asked now it seems to carry a sympathetic tone or a knowing expression. But how do I answer? Do I say no and spend half an hour blubbering on someone’s shoulder who was just trying to be nice and show a little support, but really didn’t want much of an answer. Is it right to say ‘Yes, I’m great’ when people know it isn’t true before they even ask, and really probably don’t want to hear that either. It seems that the only appropriate way is to channel your inner Ross Geller and say ‘I’m fine’, although toned back just a hair, so that they can continue their lives unburdened by your problems. So why ask? I feel like instead of encouraging people to ask ‘How are you?’ more often we should encourage people to only ask when they mean it. Our over-politeness in the UK especially has turned ‘You alright?’ and ‘How are you?’ into fairly standard greetings but with this the weight of the question is taken away, with the socially acceptable response now being a one-word answer followed by ‘you?’. When someone asks me how I am in the future I want them to genuinely want to know the answer. I want to know that they have time and are ok to listen to me rant, or cry, or rejoice for half an hour if needs be and I’d like to offer the same support back. So here is my pledge to anyone I meet in the future, when I ask ‘how are you?’ I mean it. Tell me your problems, tell me about your bad day, tell me about your good day, let me support you. Let’s turn ‘How are you?’ back from a greeting into a genuine show of care and support.
"How you doin'?" Joey Tribbiani