Why I Don’t Like “How Are You?”

It seems like such a harmless question; people toss it around like it’s nothing.  Hi, how are you?  It’s basically just an extension of the greeting.  I say it myself all the time.  Hihowareyou?  The expected response is something like “fine,” or “good, thank you.”  When someone steps outside those parameters, there’s usually an awkward pause.  Crickets.  I know I’ve been blindsided by an honest response before, caught in a moment of unexpected emotional intimacy in the checkout lane of the supermarket.  As much as I am able to empathize with someone in the throes of difficulty, I get a little uncomfortable when unanticipated openness is thrust upon me.

You see, you’re not actually supposed to say how you’re doing.

But sometimes you can’t really just say you’re fine.  Because maybe you’re not.  Or maybe you’re technically fine, everything in the small sphere of your home life and routine is fine.  You’re still doing carpool and trying to remember your coupons and reusable bags when going to Target, but there’s something just outside the safety of that mundanity which is taking your whole life and turning it upside down and shaking it violently, and no, you’re not fine.  You’re not fine at all.

Try telling that to someone when they ask how you’re doing.

There was an interesting and entertaining article detailing some cultural differences between the way Americans respond to “how are you” and the way Russians do. I can certainly relate to that exact situation.  One sentiment in the article stuck out at me:

Maybe [the Russian need for suffering is] not such a bad thing. Psychologists at the University of Michigan have shown that, while Russians are, indeed, more prone to brooding than Americans, their open embrace of negative experiences might ultimately be healthier, resulting in fewer symptoms of depression.  

And I wonder about that.  About how so many of us are walking around, dealing with whatever pain and sadness and challenge is in our life, staying within our hermetically sealed bubble of “I’m fine,” isolated from all the others who may also be suffering, who may be able to help, who could take a sliver of our pain and heartache, who could say, “it’s going to be okay.”

Why should we keep pretending that everything is fine and normal, hiding our real feelings beneath the veneer of social niceties, to only release our suffering in the solitude of our own home?  Of course, it’s not necessary or even wise to open up to just anyone, and there is a time and a place for emotional intimacy.  Dropping an emotional bomb on a relative stranger in a public place is more likely to create distance than bring closeness.

That’s what I’ve always told myself, at least, but I’ve had to reassess.  I see now that there are times when the emotions and anxiety are just so great that they spill out into average daily interactions, and I find myself, against all instinct, telling the woman in front of me in line at the deli about what’s weighing so heavily on my heart.

And I was surprised at the result.

I opened the door to my pain, just a crack, and found that it lead to support and comfort from those around me, who have maybe been through something similar and can empathize and commiserate.

This forced me to ask myself a tough question:  How often do I really listen to how people are doing?  Do I look at someone’s face when they answer the obligatory question of well-being?  Do they really look fine? Is something peeking out from behind a superficial response?

“Fine,”  ~ “my father is in the hospital and not doing very well”

“Okay,” ~ “my husband just lost his job”

“Thank G-d, ~ “my daughter hasn’t spoken to me in years”

“Good, thank you” ~ “we don’t know why our son is acting out and we’re so worried”

Everyone has different parameters to their comfort zone, and just because I take an interest in someone’s well-being doesn’t mean they will open up to me.  And that’s okay.  Not prying into someone’s life is also a kindness.  But maybe the next time I’m asking how someone is doing, I will pay attention, and if there’s an inkling that something is burdening them, I can just say one little phrase that could take the edge off:

“I’m here for you if you need to talk.”

16 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like “How Are You?”

  1. Many times I’ve been asked, “How are you?” And I’ve responded with the obligatory “Baruch Hashem,” or “Well,” etc. but have wanted the person so badly to see by my facial expressions and the flatness of my voice how not-well I’ve been doing. I actually recently expressed myself openly to a Russian in my Hebrew class as I was about to have a breakdown due to stretching myself to thin and resulting in a lack of sleep among many other things. She listened and gave advice, as did my Israeli teacher.

    Are we, as Americans, closed off to real feelings and emotion, trying to always look like the perfect cover girl?

    Thanks for the post. A great read and meaningful, as always.

    1. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but there is definitely a cultural aversion to opening up “too much.” I think it behooves us all to make sure we develop a support group, even just a couple people, to discuss our emotions with when things get hairy (and you can always email me, ftr). Hope you’re feeling better.

  2. It is not about always looking like the perfect cover girl or being closed off to real feelings and emotion but rather is the conversation taking place at the right time and in the right social setting? Having a personal conversation in the check out line of a supermarket for everyone to hear is not okay. If you see that the person is really craving attention then you can set up a coffee date and meet in a quieter place where you can address whatever issues your friend is having.

    1. I agree that there is a time and place for deeply personal conversations, and I like your suggestion of setting a coffee date in a more suitable setting. I think that there is value in at least letting people know when there is an internal struggle occurring, that instead of pretending to be fine, a person could say, “I’m hanging in there, but it’s hard right now,” to send up a flare, so to speak, letting others know that something is going on.

      Thanks so much for commenting.

    1. Being mostly cheerful is a great asset! I was talking mainly about things that transcend complaint, things like loss, terminal illness, estrangement, failed relationships, the grind of being a single mother. Stuff that would make even the most cheerful disposition feel stressed or anxious at times. That’s when reaching out and being real can be a tremendous help.

  3. I’ve thought about this quite a bit before as well. I’ll never forget the day after my dad died I went to a clothing store to buy something appropriate to wear to his funeral, and the check out lady asked me how I was. I felt like laughing and crying at the same time, but all I said was, “Fine.” Unless I wanted to break down crying to a stranger, there wasn’t anything else to say. In general I don’t like to burden people with my problems, but I always feel touched when others give me a more genuine response than “Good, thanks,” regardless of what it may be. Very nice and thoughtful post.

    1. Thank you for this lovely comment, Annie. I can relate to your feeling about not wanting to burden people, absolutely. I’m sure that those who open up to you are grateful to have you as an ear and shoulder to rely on.

  4. I love this post. I totally agree. The “how are you” phrase somehow got attached to the “hi” and people don’t necessarily wait for a response. While there is a time and place for everything and the supermarket is not the best place to spill out your guts, running through the “hi how are you” makes it very clear that you don’t really care or have the time to listen out for an answer.

    Some peoples faces talk. Some people are good at hiding. And we probably all wear masks at some point-depending on the company and those around us. A mother at her daughter’s play who is very distraught about a situation going on at home will still try to hide it all and be cheerful when she comes into her daughter’s classroom.

    If we cared enough, we’d look into the person’s eyes and slow down while we wait for a response. Sometimes the person may not be comfortable sharing how they are really doing…but giving them the opening is so helpful. I love that phrase! “I’m here for you if you need to talk” I’m going to save that one too!

    1. Yes, to slow down while we wait for a response is an excellent way to put it. And I think there is value in putting on a brave or cheerful face when it’s necessary. Even when going through something extremely trying, there are times when we have to hold it together.

  5. I hate “How are you” – I never know what to respond.
    I usually just say, “Fine, how are you?” Or, “It depends.”
    Not that the other person hears the response, anyways . . .

  6. This post really hit the spot for me. I’m generally an upfront and honest person. So if someone who knows me asks me how I am doing, I don’t usually just say a clipped “fine thank you” with a polite smile. I will do that if the time is short for both of us and it’s not the place for opening up. But there have been times that people ask “how are you?” And in my husband’s words, we can answer, “oh terrible! I died yesterday and…” And the person will ramble on “great! Wonderful! Have a nice day!” I say – if you’re not interested in an answer, then don’t ask. Period. Recently I had some stuff going on in my life and most people were really special. It’s heartwarming to see when people really care. It shows me (as you point out in your post) how important our listening skills are in enhancing our relationships. Thanks for a great post, Rivki!

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