Let's be honest. “How are you?” basically means, “Hello” in America. Have you ever been walking by someone at work and they glance up at you and say “how are you” then without even pausing their step just keep right on walking by without even waiting for your “fine” to permeate their ears? While I find the use of this greeting a bit frustrating it's not the “how are you” that I am referring to in this post.
The “how are you” I am referring to is the one someone you actually know asks. The problem is, too many people ask this question when they don't truly want to know the answer.
When someone asks “How are you?” I often feel mentally conflicted. Sometimes, I would even say the question is paralyzing. I waiver between the pat answer given to the cashier who asks out of politeness “good, and you?” or the truth given to my closest friends, “I'm struggling, to be honest” or something in between.
Being on the receiving end of this question via text is even worse. The truth is not always easy to hear. Also, no one wants to hear complaints. Even if they did, is texting the answer “not so good” going to be the end of the conversation? Because if it's not so good, maybe the answer requires more space than a text will allow, and maybe the person asking is too busy or too tired to know that things are not going well.
Are you a “tell it like it is” person? Maybe you tend to sugarcoat problems or are you fairly balanced? When someone who knows the ins and outs of my life asks “how are you?” I know they want to hear that there is some improvement. So if I don't have any improvement to report it's just hard to know how to respond.
Apparently, I'm not the only person who has a hard time answering these questions. Recently, I stumbled across an article compiling 31 honest responses to the question “how are you?”.
When someone asks, “How are you?” do you answer honestly?
This question is often thrown around as a casual greeting, so much so that we default to “I’m good!” or “I’m fine!” — even with our closest friends and family. And while we’re maybe less hesitant to open up about a stomach ache or that we’ve come down with the flu, our true emotional state can feel like a dirty secret — we don’t want to give it up.
So we asked our Mighty community — people who experience disability, disease, mental illness, parent children with special needs and more — how they’re really doing. What we got was a collection of honest, inspiring and heartbreaking answers. (source)
Check out responses on The Mighty.
There have been times when I frankly told the complete truth to which I received no reply at all. People don't always know what to say when someone's life is messy. Ongoing problems are expected to be “fixed” quickly. I spoke with my therapist about this. She confirmed my feelings that most of our friends have a hard time simply sitting with us in our pain.
There have been times when I couldn't decide how to answer “how are you?” so I just responded “same” or “meh” or “I don't want to complain.” Then I get the follow-up question, “what's wrong?” It's incredibly frustrating.
Why do we approach people like this?
Everyone could probably come up with something in their lives that is not currently going perfectly and commence the retelling of all of that. Or they could immediately correct whatever caused the outward alarm and try to be convincing that all is well. But, I'm wondering why we insist on cornering people into either lying, or retelling all the negative, often to follow that up with some sort of cliche of seeing the positive and keeping their head up.
So we ask people for their negatives and then become critical at how negative they are, when they were not even speaking in the first place.
I've been watching a phenomena for a really long time. I've noticed it mostly in regard to how uncomfortable people become around emotions or life issues that don't have a clean cut resolve in solution or direction or are simply long and drawn out or painful, people would just prefer to not be exposed to them. There is not a place of simple response and move on. If they can't fix it they'd rather not have to look at it and remember that we live in a broken world.
When I read the above quote in a blog post I realized that the author had completely summed up exactly what I was feeling and wanting to express. I suggest reading the complete article “What's wrong?” by Michelle, a member of our Hopelively group. (if you are a woman suffering from a chronic illness or just need encouragement, feel free to join our group)
Sometimes the simple question is the hardest to answer. There are some situations in life that have no clear cut solution. There are some problems that take a very long time to figure out. It is not easy when your friends expect you to pretend to have it all together and be perfectly content. Even if you make it past “how are you” and “what's wrong” you may still have to figure out how to answer, “well, what are you going to do?”
I have started experimenting with NOT asking “how are you?” unless I am truly prepared to hear how that person is even if it is negative, sad, heartbreaking or not what I wanted to hear. There are other ways to greet people. For example, in the check out line, I don't wait for the cashier to greet me. As I approach, I meet eyes and say, “Good Afternoon Gretchen (she's wearing a nametag after all) this weather is something else, isn't it?” Now she will start talking and I won't need to talk about how I am.
If a friend is not feeling well, asking “how are you” can often make them feel worse. When I am down, I personally don't want to focus on telling someone else all about how bad I feel. This works even when you know someone is feeling under the weather. “Were you able to eat or drink much today?”
I suspect many people often ask “how are you” when what they really mean is, “I am thinking of you.”
If you've ever struggled to answer these questions you're not alone!