This post may seem like a jumble of thoughts, so I apologize in advance. I’ve just been thinking a lot about the nature of the questions that we are conditioned to ask, how intrusive they can possibly be and how we need to ask questions more consciously and compassionately and sensitively. For instance, lately I’ve hated being asked “how are you?”
Hmmm… maybe that’s a little harsh. Maybe I have issues. I don’t really “hate” the question. I should count myself lucky that people care enough about me to ask it. But I can’t say that I love being asked the query. I appreciate the question and the care that is often connected to the question; it’s just that I don’t appreciate the answer that it elicits or that I feel forced to give. It’s a hard question to answer…genuinely. It’s more like I don’t like the question because I often don’t know how to answer it.
Even the the very authoritative and accurate Urban Dictionary agrees that the “how are you?” question is problematic. The Urban Dictionary lists the following as the definitions for: “How are you”:
The lamest rhetorical question in the English language. Requires the answer of ‘Fine’ no matter how you feel or why you are going to have a conversation. An exercise for the lips and tongue.
I was dying of cancer and had to see my doctor. He asked me, “How are you?”
Oft used as a do-not-bother-replying greeting, “how are you” represents the impersonalization of modern society stretched to an extent never witnessed before. It is however still okay to use it as long as you genuinely care.
Person A: Hi, how are you?
Person B: How are you?
Person A: Hi, how are you?
Person B: Like you care.
Like what do I actually say? Do I tell the truth? Does anyone ever tell the truth in response to the “How are you?” question? If not, do I lie? I chide myself by saying lying is unethical (and *sigh* un-Christlike), but sometimes I feel like it is the only option I have.
Truth is, the “how are you?” question is a gateway to vulnerability, and I’m often not ready or willing to be vulnerable and bear my soul to the person who just really wanted a cursory way to say “hi” or start a conversation.
Ask me it on an okay day and I’ll tell you, “I’m good.”
As me on a bad day and I’ll tell you, “I’m okay.”
The question turns many of us into liars. We lie about how we feel because many times we don’t feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable (i.e. tell the truth) to the person who asks the question. In other words, unfortunately, although asked with the best of intentions, the “asker” is often not a person who has gained our full trust in such a way to merit a genuine response.
Depending on the person, I wonder if I should tell them the truth or the right answer. The right answer is, “I’m okay.” Or “I can’t complain.” Or, if you’re really religious, “I’m good by God’s grace.” But, often enough, the truth is I’m tired, I’m sad, I’m hurting, I’m worried, I’m stressed, I’m overwhelmed. I’m depressed, I want to cry, I’m not doing well right now, I don’t like God.
When I say I’m okay, what I really mean is I could be better and there are a lot of things going on. The truth? Most people can’t handle the truth. Besides, if I really thought you could handle the truth (in a kind, compassionate, non-judgemental way), I probably would have told you the truth.
It also depends on who’s asking the question. When your boss says, “How are you?” you can’t say “I just spent the past 15 minutes crying in the bathroom stall because I hate my job” or “I was late again because I got into an argument with my teenager, again.” When your poor immigrant parents ask, “How are you?” it’s not easy to say, “I hate medical school and I think I’m depressed” or “I resent that I have to work harder than my peers because we’re poor.”
I mean, “How are you?” is easy to answer when you got the job, when you are approved for the loan, or when you come back from the spa.
“How are you” is much harder to answer when the days of life blur into one another, when one day mimics the day before it, when the familiar is frequent, when the day, week, or year is endlessly monochromatic, mundane and monotonous.
It is almost intrusive and often inane when the test comes back positive, when the biopsy shows that the tumor is malignant, when yet another pregnancy test reads negative, when you just had your C section, when a loved one dies.
It is almost a twist of the knife on the day of the funeral or the day after a breakup.
And then I worry that if I tell the asker the truth and nothing but the truth, and if I consistently tell them the truth when asked “how are you?” will they finally get tired and annoyed of hearing my truth? It’s one thing when you complain and confide once. It’s quite another when you do it each time when you are asked, “How are you?”
On the “how are you” question, I think about what Mandy Len wrote on her blog a few months ago:
“I keep thinking back to a rainy Sunday night, about a year ago, when I met two friends for dinner. One was pregnant and doing interesting research for her PhD in linguistics. She and her husband were thinking about buying a condo or moving to a new, baby-friendly apartment. The other, a psychologist, I hadn’t seen since August, when she was in the midst of a messy break up with a not-at-all-nice guy. But by March she was living happily with her new boyfriend—a man who seemed unbelievably successful and kind and good for her. A man she met the day after her break up. She told us about helping to raise his two kids, and her summer plans to attend conferences and visit family.
As they talked, I sipped wine and asked questions and then, when it was my turn, I realized I had nothing to say. “Um,” I tried, “I’ve been on two dates with a guy who seems kind of smart and fun, but we still haven’t scheduled a third.” I searched my life for something: work was the usual mound of ungraded papers and, yes, I was still tooling away at the same book I’d been tooling away at for years. No real travel plans, no visitors. No weekend getaways.
I woke up grouchy the next day, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. After ending a serious relationship a few years before, I’d worked hard to make my life exactly what I wanted it to be. I liked my job, and writing, and walking around the neighborhood with Roscoe. I had time for skiing and climbing and eating Thai take-out with my best friends.
But when I had to describe that life to someone I hadn’t seen in a while, the straightforward sameness of my days suddenly felt embarrassing. My close friends were getting married and making babies. I was about to turn 33—my Jesus year!—and, while I was in no rush to procreate, I wanted something to say when people asked how I was, some small miracle. I understood that the upheaval in my friends’ lives was sometimes hard, but, at the time, even having something to struggle with seemed enviable and kind of glamorous.”
I can relate. The monotony of my life – the fact that I have desperately tried to make it more interesting but that despite my best attempts my days are still as horribly mundane as the last time you asked me that question – is embarrassing. It’s an annoying question when you don’t have a witty response or any new reply because nothing new or exciting is happening in your life.
In the end, if I am to be honest, I usually end up being disingenuous (how ironic). If I’m not doing well, I lie. If I am doing well, I still probably won’t tell you because I realize not everyone wants to see me happy and sometimes I feel guilty or scared for being so happy. So I reply with a generic “I’m good.” Or “I’m okay.” Something socially acceptable and something that will easily satisfy the curiosity and satiate the concern of the asker.
I wonder, however, if we can maybe try something different? Can we be a tad more aware and sensitive when we ask our “how are you’s?” I realize that our “how are you’s” are often uttered with the best of intentions from hearts that care deeply but also from lips that fumble and fail and clumsily try to convey that care in sometimes less tactful ways than we would have hoped. But can we ask our “how are you’s” more consciously?
Perhaps we need to be more accurate with our “how are you’s.’ Instead of saying “How are you?” I read somewhere that Maya Angelou would often ask “How’s your heart?” or “How is your heart today?” Sheryl Sandberg says a good question is, “How are you today?” Both questions go deeper and acknowledge the truth that the human experience is seldom summarized with a “I’m fine. Thank you.”
“I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.” — Sheryl Sandberg (after the mourning period for the death of her husband)
If we do decide to ask “How are you?” can we actually stop, look the person in the eye and care about their response? Don’t press them if, to you at least, the response seems inadequate. But let us give each other our full attention in such a way that we know that it’s okay if they or we say something beyond surface level – something more than “I’m fine.”
I’m always doing some sort of introspection, and recently it hit me that I may be a little self-absorbed (at least I think so anyway). It’s something I need to work on. For starters, for me to be less self-absorbed is for me to ask “How are you?” and actually be genuinely interested in the response… and the respondent. I try, but, like I said, I have work to do.
Maybe I’m over thinking this (I often over think things). Regardless, I do think that there are ways to make “how are you” a little less hard, a little less horrible and a lot more helpful and heartfelt.