The simple and polite inquiry should not fill me with the dread it does. It’s a basic social grace that we work hard to instill in children and awkward adults. Yet despite how much I know people mean well and need to be taught to say it lest we create a society of over-bearing narcissists or soulless automatons, I really wish they wouldn’t.
And that goes for “How are things?” “What’s new?” and “What’s going on?” too.
The spiral this question sends me into is bad enough on a good day. Never mind that all people want to hear is “good” or even “fine.” Never mind that they probably aren’t listening to the answer, which they assume is going to be “good” or even “fine.” Never mind, that I should just lie and say “good” or even “fine,” because that’s what everyone does.
I have a difficult relationship with lying. That isn’t to say that I don’t or can’t do it; I just have a harder time lying about certain things than others. I’m selective in a way that even I don’t understand. I’d say that I have a hard time lying about emotions, but plenty of times I’ve told a boss that I loved a job I hated because I wanted to keep the job. So maybe I just need stakes when I lie and your comfort level as I vomit everything I’m thinking and feeling all over you is not enough of one.
And yet that’s not true either. Often I hesitate to answer exactly because I’m thinking of someone else’s feelings. If things are great when you get the “How are you?” there’s a fear that too much detail will sound braggy. Who wants to hear about your raise and your fabulous vacation when they hate their job and their car broke down?
Sure, you can just say, “Great, how are you?” and then they can answer, “Great!” but where does that leave the conversation: two people staring at each other wondering what to talk about next. “Read any good books lately?” People don’t read anymore! I mean I read. I read all the time. I read so much it’s like there’s something wrong with me. (NOTE: There is.) But I also read a lot of stuff that I’m hesitant to cop to. (Not like Harlequin romances, but like mysteries. A lot of mysteries.) “Seen any movies?” That’s such a divisive question these days you might as well ask, “Which god do you believe in?”
And if things are bad, the question gives me a panic attack. “How am I? Well, I’m terrible. Where would you like me to start?” This leads me down a path of both revisiting everything that I’m already upset about while my brain does a contortionist act trying to figure out exactly how to answer you. Do I say, “I’ve been better,” knowing that you’re going to feel obligated to ask further questions? And knowing that I will only feel guilty that I’ve made you feel obligated? And how much information do I give then? Do I commence the vomiting up of feelings on you now? Or do I pick and choose details and if so, which ones, and isn’t this also another form of lying?
I’ve talked to more and more people recently who dislike the “How are you?” question and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The more time you spend hanging out on Earth, the more life has its way with you and the trickier it gets to figure out how you are. People are divorced; they’re separated. They’ve lost jobs, homes, parents, children. Sometimes they’re just lost. Their life is good but it no longer fills them with the same sense of joy that it used to and they’re looking for the reason why and the solution. They’re depressed, they’re angry, they’re grief-stricken.
These are all answers to the question “How are you?” and yet to say so seems inappropriate. It’s TMI. It’s a downer. It’s the beginning of conversation they didn’t ask to have. It’s the beginning of a conversation they might want to have too much and for the wrong reasons. And it’s the beginning of a conversation you might not be able to have without sobbing snot down your face and angrily cursing the gods for forsaking you all while standing in the G-free aisle at Whole Foods.
Again lying is an option. And one that you would think I would fall back on given the anxiety spiral truth-telling sends me into. The problem is that lying feels empty. And maybe that’s why I really hate the question, “How are you?” It sounds like it’s supposed to encourage connection, but it does just the opposite. A more honest interaction would be, “It’s nice to see you.” “Thank you, it’s nice to see you, too.” And then both parties could go on their way knowing that they were being polite and fulfilling a social contract without being disingenuous.
That still leaves the lack of connection, however. And anyone who can’t just answer “good” or even “fine” probably really needs that connection right now. So maybe we don’t need to find the right answer. Maybe we need to find the right question. Maybe we need to say, “I’m not “good” or even “fine” right now. Are you?”