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.”