On Finally Appreciating, “How are you?”

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.

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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.

Well, what was the good of that?

A brief reflection on Public Displays of Anger.

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Once, while at Heathrow getting breakfast, I witnessed a little scene. It wasn’t anything big or unusual, but it was indeed a scene.

“And how is everything?”

The waiter walks up to a table where mother and daughter are sipping on the icy remains of smoothies. The daughter looks about ten years old, dressed in her travel clothes, comfortable – grey sweatpants and a grey and pink long sleeved shirt. Straight hair and a bit of a sullen expression, she’s hunched over her smoothie glass, noisily sucking up air and chunks of ice. The mother perks up at the waiter’s approach, and you can tell she’s been waiting, dying, for someone to ask.

“Well, I’m not too happy with your seat discrimination policy,” she announces loudly. I close the cover on my iPad. She has my attention.

The waiter starts, clearly not expecting this. “I’m sorry?”

“Your colleague,” she demands, “Let me speak with your colleague.” And her finger hooks in the air at the young hostess in the front of the cafe.

Soon the hostess has been summoned, and it begins.

“Right,” she starts. Just so you are here with me, you have to imagine her with this strong English accent – think Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearancesand so this, “Right” comes out full force posh and authoritarian.

“So how come we’re seated here at a regular table and you just seated the two who just came in at a plush table?” The ‘plush’ table she refers to is one of many along the edge of the cafe, with high backed leather armchairs. The mother and daughter are seated at a table in the middle of the cafe that has normal wooden chairs. “We’ve just finished one 9 hour flight and then we have a 10 hour flight to go. Tired, got my daughter with me, and then we have to deal with this crap of, oh, you can only sit here.”

The hostess is red in the face now – she’s only a young girl. “I don’t understand,” she says, shaking her head.

“I said I wanted to sit there,” the lady says, “and you said, no, one of these tables only.”

I write this off as a complete misunderstanding. I am convinced that somehow the mother misunderstood. From how I was seated and from watching other customers, the hostess gives a choice and the customer chooses. I don’t see why this case would be any different – and there were also other kids in the restaurant, so I don’t think that was a factor.

What is interesting to me beyond the details of this specific case however is the customer/server dynamic and how this lady responded to what she saw as an injustice.

The incident ended with the hostess offering to move the two to a different table and with the mother brushing the suggestion off. “No, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

It was quite a stressful exchange with no obvious material benefit resulting…so, why escalate it? Why did the mother feel compelled to say something? What benefits? What end was she trying to achieve?

She felt like she was treated unjustly, discriminated against. She spoke loudly, perhaps for others to recognize this. She was shaming those that had ill-treated her. When we call out the deficiencies of those who serve us, whether it’s the air stewardess who knocks our elbow with the cart or the waiter who makes us wait too long before taking our order – are we seeking to punish? Punishment being their discomfort? Perhaps we imagine that there could be some negative consequences for the employee. Sometimes, there could be compensation for us, a free dessert, a gift voucher – is that what we’re targeting?

There is also a psychological, emotional element. Of being human and needing to release frustrations, to prove to ourselves that we don’t let people step over us, that we know how we should be treated and know how to stand up for ourselves.

And then there is the customer/server element. Are we crueler to those who serve us than to everyone else? My instinct tells me yes. We are more prone to get angry at someone in a serving capacity than someone not in a serving capacity. We might expect more from those serving and less from everyone else. But also, there is little danger or risk from verbally abusing someone while they’re working. They, by the terms of their employment, do not have the ability to respond fully and defend themselves. Chances are, they won’t swear back at you. They certainly won’t physically assault you.

I just found myself, as the hostess, red in the face walked back to the front of the cafe with the mother and daughter still sitting at their ‘non-plush’ table, wondering, well what was the good of that?