Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2012/ How Are You?: A User's Guide

How Are You?: A User's Guide

"How are you?" is a social nicety I find irritating. One uses the question as a greeting, a way of being polite and acknowledging the existence of the conversational partner. The expected answers are along the lines of "Fine!" or "I'm doing well!" or "Fabulous! How are you?" and any deviation from this cheery tone ruins the social lubrication.

The question irritates me because it takes one of the most important questions social beings can ask -- to find out about the internal state of another human being -- and trivializes. Most of the time people don't actually want to know how you are; most of the time they just want to be polite (which preserves their own social standing).

The question irritates me because the standard answers portray the world as being full of happy, well-adjusted people who suffer no worries. Given the wealth of our society maybe we all should be happy and well-adjusted, but in practice we are not, and I resent propagating the deception that we are. I have known people who are grieving or in pain who respond to "How are you?" in the standard ways even if they have just been crying.

The question irritates me because I can rarely answer it honestly without looking impolite, oblivious or like a drama queen. Maybe I am calibrated incorrectly or maybe everybody is right and I should be on SSRIs, but I rarely feel that I am "Fine!" or "Fabulous!". Sometimes I am doing okay. At other times I am not doing okay, but do not want to raise a fuss. At other times I am lonely or hurting or would just like to reveal my inner state to another person, and being asked the question in a casual way reminds me that I have few safe confidantes.

The question irritates me because when people I trust ask it earnestly, I usually chicken out and deflect the question instead of responding honestly.

The question irritates me because all too often I find myself using it as a greeting when I know full well that I am not interested in the answer.

Even though I dislike the question, it is not going away any time soon, and I am no longer young enough to enjoy the privilege of being oblivious. I do not want to raise fusses and I do not want to be rude, so over the years I have come up with a number of standard responses I have to this question. Because I am idiot, I am now going to write out these responses to the question "How are you?" -- and worse, I am going to describe what they indicate.

When I respond "Fine" I usually mean "I do not trust you enough to reveal myself" or "I am not inclined to get into a conversation about my internal state right now" or "I am not inclined to stand up for my nitpicky and possibly autistic ideology right now, so here is the default answer."

A response of "Okay" can mean any of the above, but sometimes reveals that I am less than fine. "I'm getting by" is similar.

A response of "So-so" can mean any of the above, but often indicates that I am getting by. Sometimes "so-so" means I am in good shape, and sometimes it means that I am in less than good shape.

A response of "That's not a polite question to ask!" means I am deflecting, and often that I am probably not doing that well, but that I do not want to ruin the mood or conversation by discussing things.

A response of "Underworked and overpaid" means that I am deflecting and trying to be humorous by repeating a tired joke.

A response of "How can I help you?" or "What can I do for you?" means I am ignoring the question and hoping to get to the actual topic of conversation.

A response of "I've been better" usually indicates that I am in bad shape, and that I am irritated or depressed or otherwise agitated.

A response of "Poor" means that I am in bad shape, and usually that I am barely functional.

Now that you have the secret decoder ring to my responses I guess I will have to come up with a new set. Better yet, let's make a deal: I will attempt to ask the question only when I mean it (which is often the case -- I try to ask when I want to know) and you do the same?

Acceptable substitutes for insincere substantiations of "How are you?" include "Hi!", "It's nice to see you!" (if that is the case), "It's awful to see you" (if that is the case), "What's up/happening/new?". Even "How about them Leafs?" or "That's some weather we're having?" seem more acceptable, because at least one can address those without resorting to dishonesty.