Recently, I was trapped in a terrifying conversational vortex. I said, “Hi, how are you?” and the other person replied, “Fine, how are you?” and I replied, “Good, how are you?” and in the several years that passed as we stood there repeating the same question automatically, paying no attention to the other person’s response, I had plenty of time to think about what a terrible greeting “How are you?” is.
Yet it’s standard. “Hey! How are you?” we say to everyone we meet.
It’s basically one step removed from a rhetorical question. Unlike a rhetorical question, which you are not supposed to answer, “How are you?” is a question you are supposed to answer only one way: “Fine!” Or “Good!” or “Great!” or “Excellent!” or “Well!” if you are a stickler for adverbs. In the annals of Questions that Actually Demand an Honest Answer, it’s right up there with “Does this [item of clothing] make me look fat?” “Who’s the fairest of them all?” and “Am I not a great, just emperor?”
Few other questions work like this. If we answered “So, what do you do?” the same way we answer “How are you?” we would all say, “Doctor!” very enthusiastically, and then you would have to ask us again later in the conversation if you really wanted to know. Some of us would turn out to be doctors, but most of us would be lying. “What do you think of this band?” “I LOVE IT!” you would say, and then later you would admit that its overuse of the mandolin really irked you.
“How are you?” is less an actual question than a fun conversational call-and-response. You might as well say, “Marco?”
No one actually wants to hear the answer. In fact, if you actually answer the question, it’s viewed as a serious faux pas. The other party to the conversation either does not notice and breezes on through, or goggles at you, aghast. We have no idea how to respond to anything other than an expression of complete and utter satisfaction with life. If you say, “How are you?” and I respond, “Well, to be honest, I’ve been kind of depressed. I had real difficulty getting out of bed all week. Everyone I love is getting old, and I’m just not sure of my place in the world, and sometimes I feel just really alone, you know? Thank you for asking,” you would, of course, be sympathetic and step up, but secretly you would resent the pants off me for breaking the unwritten code of conversation, according to which you were supposed to say a thing and I was supposed to say another thing and then we were supposed to start the actual conversation. “I didn’t want to know how you were!” you would think angrily. “I just wanted you to tell me you were fine!”
“How Are You?” is not the only culprit, of course. “What’s up?” and “How’s it going?” are two more Questions Whose Answer We Are Not Interested In Hearing that we’ve introduced into this whole call-and-response greeting to offer a wrinkle, lest people get on autopilot.
“What’s up?” offers a slight advantage because some people respond, “The sky!!!!!” or “Infant mortality!” so you instantly know to remove those people from your social circle.
But even then, the funny thing about the range of Not-Really-Question-Not-Really-Answer greetings is how upsetting and awkward it is if one of you slips up and gets them wrong. The exchanges “How are you?” “Not much, you?” and “What’s up?” “Good!” make everyone cringe. It’s like when a Sim says “Drawing of a Motorcycle!” and another Sim responds “Skull and Crossbones” and then they both stand there looking chagrined and waving their Life bars. You suddenly realize that you weren’t asking or answering actual questions. You were just making friendly noises at each other.
When you say “How are you?” you are so far from actually asking how the other party is that if you legitimately want to know, you need to ask again later in the conversation. “But how are you, really?” you say.
We even do this in situations where it is palpably ridiculous.
You go to the doctor because you are pretty convinced that something has gone horribly awry with your kidney, that you are slowly hemorrhaging from within and it is only a matter of time before you have to greet your Maker, but you still start the session by saying, “How are you?” “I’m fine. How are you?” “Oh,” your doctor says. “I’m well. So what brings you here?” “I think I’m slowly and horribly dying!”
“Well, Petri,” you are no doubt saying to yourself (or thinking, if you are somewhere surrounded by people), “what do you want me to do about it? Do you want me to honestly start telling people how I am when they ask? Because I find find that prospect a little alarming.” And so, to be honest, do I. The only thing worse than the “How Are You/Fine, Thanks, And You!/Fine, Thanks, And You!” never-ending litany is the people who put their arms akimbo and say, “Are you just asking, or do you really want to know?” Those people are the worst.
All I am suggesting is that we adopt a more realistic form of greeting. We need the call-and-response, but without the pressure of opening every conversation with an outright lie — or at the very least a slight exaggeration. Maybe something along the lines of
“Say the word ‘Fine’!”
“So, how are you?”
That might work.
(Agree? Disagree? Come say howdy! I’m @petridishes on Twitter!)