It’s taken me a while to appreciate the question, “How are you?” For the longest time, it bothered me. At work, I would pass someone in the hall. As we walked towards each other, I’d hear a “Hey Jennifer, how are you?” but before I could answer we’d already have passed each other and I’d mumble a “Fine, thanks” into an empty hallway.
Or on the phone with a supplier, “Hi Jennifer, how are you?” “I’m good, thanks. How about you?” “Yeah, doing well.” Great. Glad we got that useless nothing out of the way.
It just seemed pointless, fake. A shallow pretense of caring without the appropriate goodwill and feelings behind it. I preferred my conversations to be authentic. As in, please don’t ask me how I’m doing unless you genuinely care.
My non-American friends seemed to agree. Together we’d complain about this strange American thing that we didn’t understand. Until lately.
I work now in a library in a small town. Jones, Oklahoma. Population 2,600. People like to say that if you blink while you’re coming down the road, you’ll miss it. There’s a Sonic Drive-Thru, a Dollar General, and not too much else.
People here really like the whole “How are you?” thing. I’m expected to ask it. And so I do. At first, it was with a heavy dose of awkwardness and uncomfortableness that was not entirely all in my head. I’d have customers tilt their heads and ask me, “What was that?” Really, it’s not a question I’ve been used to asking. And there’s a whole art to asking it at the right time, at the right volume, with the right inflection.
But now that I have a few months of practice under my belt (timing, volume, and inflection are thankfully coming along), I see the question as holding so much more.
Most importantly, I see it now as an invitation to connect and share that can be accepted or politely declined. What I mean by this is that a lot of time, people don’t need in that moment the “How are you?” They answer it just like I usually do – with a “Fine, thanks” and the conversation stops there.
But sometimes, I’ll ask the question and you see them pause and there’s a change in the eyes. And they share. We’ll spend five minutes talking about the difficulties of having a child with ADHD or a member’s failing vision and their fears of losing independence in driving. An older gentleman will brag about his young granddaughter and a middle aged woman will prattle off each and every dish she and her family had for Thanksgiving. Without that “How are you?’ though, there is no invitation to share. There is no possibility for connecting. When you say “How are you?” I feel like what you’re really saying is, “I have time today to talk to you, and if you want to talk, we can. What’s on your mind?”
I’ve never been one to naturally share, and so excluding conversations with friends and family, I’ve don’t really myself take others up on the invitation. But many people do. I’m always surprised by how many people just seem to want to talk – and for a long time. If the library is quiet, we’ll speak for ten or fifteen minutes just going through whatever’s on their mind.
And if the question is never asked, there is no possibility really, of connecting. I’ll get them their books and we’ll tell each other the rote “Have a nice day,” but without anything more. An opportunity missed.