How do you answer the question “How are you?”
If you’re like most people, your response is usually a quick “I’m fine, how are you?”
I’ve come to really hate how people answer this question.
The question – and response – have turned into nothing more than another version of hello, equivalent with banal comments about the weather or someone’s outfit. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people walking past each other who ask the question and give the expected response without even slowing down. I’ve done it myself more than I care to admit.
“I’m fine, how are you?” has become such a common response that it is jarring to hear someone say something different. In the store last week, I asked the cashier how he was doing and his response of “I’m doing really great!” threw me for a loop. I wasn’t expecting anything more than the usual scripted response.
Perhaps that’s why I hate it so much.
It has become a societal lie, a facade that people hide behind to avoid having to give the real answer. You could be homeless, in the middle of a divorce, battling serious health issues, or trying to get your kids off drugs…but if someone asks how you’re doing, you’re probably going to tell them you’re fine.
Why? Why do we work so hard to hold people at arm’s length? What is the harm in being honest?
The harm – or perhaps the danger – is that we’d be opening ourselves up to vulnerability. And people do not like being vulnerable.
This became painfully apparent to me during a trip to the doctor’s office a few months ago.
I’d gotten struck with a bacterial infection, and went to the doctor to get some medicine to clear it up. As I waited in one of the rooms, the nurse walked in and asked me the standard question – “How are you?” The response was so ingrained into me that I almost responded with the expected script, without even thinking about it.
Except that I was obviously not fine. I was in tremendous pain and we both knew it. Who was I kidding? I was not fine.
Since that day, I’ve been making a conscious effort to truthfully answer the question of how I’m doing when it’s asked. If I’m stressed, I tell them. If I’m happy, I say that, too. Of course I don’t go into detail with every person who asks me.
Nevertheless, there’s tremendous freedom in being able to be truthful, rather than sticking to the script.
It’s also incredibly challenging. Sometimes people don’t actually want to hear anything off-script. Sometimes they won’t even slow down as they’re asking the question. I don’t like feeling rejected any more than the next person.
But I look at it like any other habit. It takes just as much practice and repetition to build up vulnerability as it does to build up your body. If the people around me don’t feel like exercising, that’s no skin off my back. I’ll just keep being honest, keep being vulnerable, and look forward to the fruit that will come. No more faking fine!