Consider this random encounter in a random hallway at a random place where there are random people who know each other:
“Hi, How are ya?”
“Oh hey! I’m good, how’s it going with you?”
“I’m fine, see ya later!”
I’ve heard many people complain about the inauthentic nature of this conversation. In fact, I’ve maybe complained as well about such greetings that are so typical in our modern social setting. We all know that these passing statements aren’t usually an invitation to share an accurate depiction of our emotional temperature, they are, in brief, greetings, and therefore they are… brief.
Today I was contemplating these realities:
First, to ask somebody how they are doing is a normal cultural greeting in our society as it is in many others. This greeting does not require, in fact frequently shies away from, an outpouring of how we are really doing. Such an answer we don’t have time for in passing. Whether you view this as insensitive or not, its the reality of our culture.
Second, some people I’ve talked to are frustrated with this portion of our culture and feel it hinders authenticity and therefore, true community. They view these greetings as shallow and hypocritical. They realize that many people answer “fine” or “good” because it is the socially “appropriate” response, not necessarily how that person is actually doing.
Usually these people frustrated by this perceived inauthenticity are just starting to analyze their culture and thus realize that there are portions of it, particularly portions that they perhaps have blindly accepted, that they might now disagree with. Its a rough process to start, but necessary.
And in light of those two competing realities, I have come to my own convictions.
First, realize the reality (both the benefit and the limit) of an appropriate greeting. “Hi, how’s it going” is simply acknowledging somebody’s presence and value. Its polite. It might not be deep, but its friendly and appropriate. If people can be polite with one another on a shallow level, they have the possibility of opening up more in later meetings because they feel valued and appreciated in the little ways, ie: greetings.
Furthermore, if you really want to know how somebody is doing, and you have the time, ie: you’re not passing them in the hallway off to a meeting, but instead sitting down for lunch together, ask specifically. This might be just my preference, but it drives me crazy when I sit down with a friend, or an acquaintance and they say something like this: “Ok, so tell me how you really are, none of this fake stuff…”
This implies that other times in the past I’ve been fake with them. Ouch! Even if I have been “fake” with them, there’s probably a reason, and they didn’t just gain my trust with that request, er, demand.
Also, this is a really broad question. I’m overwhelmed with such a broad question, especially when I feel the other is expecting something deep and profound! I could be feeling a number of things at once:
- Nervous for an conversation I need to have later
- excited for my weekend plans
- angry that somebody cut me off on the way to work
- confused about a social interaction that I’ve probably analyzed way too much to be helpful
- pondering the meaning of a weird dream I had last night
- trying to figure out when I will have time to make dinner tonight
- the list goes on
With all of these emotions and thoughts swirling in my head, how to I answer your general question about how I am really doing?
A question that I would love to answer is a little more narrowed down. For example: “Hey remember you told me yesterday your grandma’s not doing well, how are you feeling about that?” or “So I noticed on Facebook that you watched (random movie) this weekend, what did you think of it?”
This slightly more specific approach is easier to answer and also gives the feel that this other person has noticed something about me without me having to tell them about it. It helps me feel as if they’re already interested. Always a plus.
The Literal and the Not So Literal
Lastly, if you’re going to continue being frustrated about the paradox of this greeting: asking how you are but not really wanting more than a one word reply at the moment, then please recognize all the other ways we do this in our language. We have plenty of phrases we use that are not interpreted literally.
In fact, that word literally has ironically come to not always mean what it literally means. Let me provide an example… I heard a student the other day complaining about a test she was going into that she wasn’t prepared for. She said “If I don’t pass this test, I will literally die!!” In reality, she won’t die. And in reality, literally speaking, she won’t die.See how many other non literal phrases you can spot:
- “I’m starving!”
- “I love greek yogurt, OMG, I’m like obsessed with it! You don’t even understand.”
- “If he comes home with the wrong kind of yogurt again, I’m going to kill him.”
Yeah, whatever. We understand that you’re not really starving, you’re just hungry. You’re also not obsessed with something as trivial as greek yogurt, but I do in fact understand that you like it a great deal, more than any other kind of yogurt, perhaps more than any other kind of dairy product, who knows? I sure hope you’re not actually going to kill somebody for, again, something as trivial as yogurt, but I understand that you’re angry and frustrated. But if you’re actually starving, obsessive, and planning a murder, we have many more problems on our hands than being hungry and upset and without yogurt.
“How are you?” is simply another way of saying “hi” just like “I’m starving” is another way of saying “I’m hungry”. Simple as that.