When (Not) To Say, ‘How Are You?’

I love people. I love communicating. Okay, I’ll say it, I’m an extrovert. I like to be social. And I like to talk to people. But something about the question, “How are you?” is really hard for me. And I hear it all the time, every day. It’s ubiquitous – a fairly complicated inquiry masquerading as a basic question we can throw around to anyone at all.

There are others, too:

How have you been?

How are things?

How’s it going?

They’re all really hard.

Now, let me clarify. It’s not that I don’t want to dive into these questions. I’m actually pretty certain that I want to share with you lots of details about my life. I want to tell you story after story about all of the experiences I’ve been through since the last time I saw you. I love to talk. I like humans. I like sharing.

But these types of questions are hard because they ask me to judge my experiences before I’ve even told you about them. At their core, they’re hard questions because they’re hard to answer.

Trying to Answer These Questions

I started thinking about this several months ago. I was feeling really wonderful. But when people asked me how I was doing, I felt like I didn’t have a good answer for them. I would say, “I’m really wonderful!” And they would stare at me, expecting me to go on. But I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have any proof points.

I had answered the question too well, cutting straight to the answer and passing over the reasons why. Because I didn’t have a reason why I was wonderful. I just was. Nothing had changed. I still had the same job, friends, family, relationship status, hobbies, etc. that I had enjoyed the last time we had talked. (And I was probably really wonderful the last time we talked, too!) But it’s a little awkward to just sit there beaming in your own happiness, trying to think of some event or some reason why life is now good, just to have something to say.

Answering these questions can also be hard when things have changed. I was at an event with several friends who I hadn’t seen in a week or two, and naturally, many of them asked me how I was doing. I had, as it happened, had a somewhat rough week, trying to sort out some feelings, and I wasn’t overflowing with the same general happiness as in the last example.

“How are you, Laurel?” they asked.

“I’m sad,” I thought about saying, as I scoured my brain for how I was feeling.

“OH NO ARE YOU OK WHAT’S WROONGGG????”

Fear of that response prevented me from actually having that conversation. Because I didn’t really want to talk about my sadness. I was happy to talk about plenty of other meaningful things, though. So asking “How are you?” is setting me up to fail. Realistically, I’m just going to say that I’m good, regardless of how I really feel, because it’s easy, and then I’ll spend the rest of the conversation trying to convince you that I’m not sad, because I’ve placed myself in that framework and now I’m stuck with it.

But that’s not very honest. So how can we get back to the truth?

Alternatives

Well, if we haven’t spoken in a while, you can’t really ask me anything specific about my life, which would be a great alternative for someone I see more frequently (i.e. “How did the interview go?” Note: that still might be asking you to judge it. But it’s specific enough that you’re going to quickly move on from the judgment to a description of how it happened, which is what the question was really asking, anyway.)

I also don’t care for varieties of “What’s new?” because frankly, life moves pretty quickly, and from one week to the next, I might not really have anything new to report. I went to work, I went to yoga, I hung out with friends, I cooked some food, I’m sorry – I’m boring – we can’t talk about this.

But what if we asked each other about the future? What if we talk about something we can’t possibly yet judge? And along the way, have a conversation that might actually help us shape our future actions in a productive way?

What if the generic questions were more like:

What’s going on this week for you?

Are you busy right now?

Are you doing anything fun this weekend?

Wouldn’t that be a better place to start? And no matter how long it ends up being until the next time you see them, you’ll be able to start by asking them a non-generic, quite specific question actually, about something you’ve already discussed. Seems like a win-win.

Or, even better yet, what if we talk about shit that’s happening now? What if you don’t ask me any questions but just talk to me about whatever is on your mind? Tell me about your shitty day and listen for when it seems like I might want to empathize with a story from my shitty life (woah, I got a little Louis CK, there). The point is – I promise, if you’re truly interested in me and my life stories, we’ll eventually shift to talking about me. You won’t have to ask.

So please, stop asking me how I’m doing. Just start talking to me and then you can decide for yourself how I am.

A Side Note

OK. So I understand that this isn’t a big deal. I don’t want to hear about people saying, “Jeez, it’s just a saying, get over it.” I’m not trying to say that I hate you when you ask me that (I say it, too! It’s a really normal thing to say.. I get it). I’m trying to say that I think our conversations will be better and I’ll be able to be more honest with you if instead of asking me how I’m doing, you just wait and let me show you.

[Now. There is one exception, which is for your closest friends. When I meet my friend for a drink and he says, “How are you?” and he saw me the day before and already knows about all my shit, he’s really asking something else. He’s asking something more like, “Can I be here for you right now?” or, “Do you want to tell me anything new today that will help me know how to best support you?” And that, my friends, is a totally different version of the question that I am 100% ok with.] TC mark

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