I remember when I first went to the US, and people would say: ‘Hi, how are you?’ and I’d start to answer them and then realise that it wasn’t a question at all, just a greeting – they didn’t expect an answer.
I also remember that question being challenged years ago, when I was studying philosophy, because it was open to so many interpretations. I could say, ‘I’m 5 foot 10 inches tall’, or ‘I’m clumsy at art’ and they would be valid answers, if not what the person intended!
‘How are you?’ is still a standard opening gambit with many of us, and there’s a wisdom in that if we follow it through to its intention. If we can establish what sort of place someone is in when we first meet them, we can adapt how we interact with them, so it works better.
In Native American traditional culture, it was normal to just sit down with someone you hadn’t seen for a while, so both of you could get a sense of how the other one was, and you would only begin a conversation when you had assessed the situation. We are not good at just sensing how someone is, – nor at sitting in silence with someone! – So asking ‘How are you?’ is our version of that, when used well.
However, we have largely lost that flavour to it. We may ask the question but we often don’t really want to know the answer – we just want to get on with the business in hand. And when we answer the question, we use a lot of meaningless phrases to almost dismiss it: ‘ I’m OK’, ‘Alright, thanks’, ‘Not bad..’ ‘Fine’. Sometimes this is because we also want to just get on with whatever the interaction is about, and sometimes it is because we sense that the other person is not really interested in our answer.
And we all lose out when we do this. We miss out on an opportunity to make real human connection, and to properly assess what will make the interaction we have work better. We also miss the chance to build a relationship that has more depth to it with that person, so that it becomes easier and easier to be with them. After all, we al feel more valued and feel more positive towards those who take a genuine interest in us and our situation.
So maybe it’s time to ask the question in a different way. We could experiment with these:
- What’s going on in your world?
- How’s life treating you today?
- What’s going on with you?
- How is today going for you?
Or we could set the tone by answering the unasked question first: ‘Hi, I’ve had a productive morning, how about you?’ or ‘I’m feeling a bit rushed today, how about you?’
It doesn’t take long to pay attention to how someone is before we launch into the interaction, and it helps both of us to feel more connected, more cared for, more taken account of.
So how are you today?