Sunday, September 15, 2019

The question “how are you?” has lost its meaning in our society




“How are you?” It’s my go-to question and a pre-packaged, freeze-dried solution for my inherent awkward nature. For years, I was unsure of what to say when I encountered people. A simple “’hi” seemed impersonal, a casual wave was empty without the accompaniment of some cheerful greeting, and my attempts at trying “the silent head nod” would signal a need for medical attention rather than a warm acknowledgment. After a few years of trial-and-error—and a few mild neck injuries—I found the perfect balance of authenticity and brevity in “How are you?” However, it was not until a recent encounter with a co-worker that I began to seriously consider re-evaluating my greeting of choice. Halfway between crafting an earth-shattering peppermint mocha and sweet-talking the undecided customer before me, I stepped aside to make room for my co-worker behind the barista counter. She breezed past me to make a bee line for the refrigerator. I recognized that stride—the kind that marks one’s rapid transition from a zombie-like college student to a tardy Olympic Long Walker. “How are you?” I asked, almost mechanically. I was surprised by the sudden silence, as her store room shuffle came to an abrupt halt. I peered around the wall to see her standing there solemnly with a clever grin on her face. “Hey, what if I had given you some really dark answer just now?” I couldn’t help but to smile back at her insightful observation. “I really don’t know,” I answered. In all honesty, I am truly unprepared for an honest, heartfelt response to that question. Truth be told, I embrace “How are you?” as a filler phrase in any standard greeting. Very seldom do I listen intently for the answer. I always assume that others will reply with an equally mechanical response of “I’m fine” or “I’m good.” At the most, I’m prepared to honor “Very well, thank you!” as an extensive, yet acceptable response. In fact, I have only received a somber response on one occasion, and that response was enough to make me wish I had given that silent head nod another chance. Call it social etiquette or a universal distaste for “oversharers,” but a genuine no-holds-barred reply to “How are you?” makes most people want to dig a hole, hop in it, and only come out when the pity party is pooped. We share this consensus that when others express interest in our well-being, it is a gracious and short-lived gesture. Unless we’re having a heart-to-heart, there’s a three-second window within which the standard greeting must occur. The first second is for eye contact. The next is for verbal acknowledgment—“Hey, how are you?” Only one second remains for the response. Often, one can kindly offer to split that last second in half with a quick “I’m well, and you?” The exchange can then conclude in two ways. It can be stitched up neatly with a “Good, good!” or it can trail off into the dark abyss of lightning-fast greetings. That’s just how it is. Any effort to extend that exchange and offer the unabridged version of one’s life story is not just frowned upon—we hate it. General reactions can range from a feigned expression of sympathy to an awkward crab walk towards the nearest exit. Only a kind soul will stay for the aftermath, desperately trying to use the ruins to build a bridge out of Awkwardville. Even then, their faces will contort into this pained expression, as they tell you about how much they really need to make it to their next engagement…but don’t worry, you can call them if you ever need to talk. If one looks closely, exploring our tendency to react in this way can reveal a few precious tidbits about human nature. To ask how a person is doing without expecting an atypical answer is the equivalent of “eating with our eyes” on Thanksgiving. We pile up our plate with pleasantries only to realize that clearing it will be impossible. This isn’t to say that we’re all heartless or that we don’t care at all about how anyone’s day is going. It merely draws attention to the fact that we belong to such a fast-paced generation. In the heat of the hustle and bustle, we’re left with no choice but to pencil personal exchanges into our calendars. On the other hand, much can be said about our general reluctance to truthfully answer such a question ourselves. So much fear lies in sharing any of our struggles, especially if there’s a potential to deter someone who was kind enough to inquire in the first place. The tender nature of that fear alone is enough to make me want to savor such a greeting, reserving it purely for moments when there is time to really stop and listen. Maybe my standard greeting of choice might actually hurt more than it helps, especially in an environment that can only be described as “on-the-go.” More and more, I’m questioning how likely it is that such a simple question pushes us to limit ourselves to three seconds and 140 characters when our spirits are bursting at the seams.

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