There are no simple answers to personal questions. “How are you?” sounds like a simple enough question. But it might as well be a grenade lobbed into your living room. I have no idea how to answer that question. How am I? I mean… I don’t know. Which things should I take into account when answering that question?
What are you really asking?
“How are you?” is an overly simplified, all-too-often disingenuous question. If I want to know you, I’m going to take the time to think of a more specific question that provides you with a path to actually answering. Because otherwise, you won’t know if I’m asking:
- Are you healthy?
- Are you happy?
- Are you breathing?
- Has anyone in your family died?
- Do you still have gainful employment/business?
- Have you won any national awards lately?
- Did you win the lottery?
- Are you on the verge of retiring due to overwhelming success?
- Are you on the verge of committing yourself to rehab for a drug addiction?
- Are there any scintillating scandals you want to tell me about?
- Have you done anything out of the ordinary that I would be interested in hearing about?
If there’s a script, it’s not personal
“I’m fine. How are you?” It’s the answer we expect, but what does it mean? It’s a scripted response to a scripted question. It’s a programmed ritual that really just takes the awkwardness and responsibility out of meaningful, personal interaction.
Did we actually learn anything about each other with this ritual greeting? Or did we just feel good for a moment because we fit into our prescribed roles and performed them adequately?
In any given hour, I experience a gamut of emotions. Things I fear. Things I regret. Things I hope for. Things I avoid. Things I choose to face. Things I choose push through. Things I choose to be grateful for. Kind words I choose to say.
There are layers of complexity to any interaction. But we don’t honor this truth with our casual, everyday speech. We gloss over complexity and oversimplify for the sake of… what… expediency?
Expediency and efficiency. The same reason we don’t stop to talk to every single person we pass in the parking lot. We don’t make eye contact, acknowledge their existence, or communicate care. Why? Because we make instant real-time judgments about what is worth our time. And if you live in New York City, that’s necessary. You can’t address 50 people passing you every few seconds in real-time. No meaningful connections can be made. Ignoring the individuality of so many people around you is a survival mechanism.
But the problem is we bring that survivalism back into our daily routines. In essence, we stopped exercising the survival skill of meaningful personal greetings. So we opt out and plug in a ritual. And we feel good about not causing awkwardness or hurt feelings, and we move on.
But at what cost? What if we turned ritual on its head and reintroduced the personalized, meaningful greeting that makes each person we meet feel recognized, seen, and important?