While the rituals of social interaction have long been a mystery to me, I’ve always been particularly stuck by this common (in the States, at least) dialogue:
How are you?
I’m fine. You?
Well, then. Nice chat.
Some day, I’ll dig out the diatribes from my youth railing against these seemingly benign conversations. But whether the response is “fine,” “okay,” “good,” or some variation thereof, for now, I’ll simply do a quick review of all that is wrong with this situation.
First, are you really fine? I mean, it’s fine to say you’re fine if you’re fine. Hey, I’d even say it’s good to say you’re fine if that’s where you’re at. But what if you’re not fine?
And that, of course, leads to my next question.
Second, what if you say you’re fine when you’re not fine? This question is somewhat difficult, and gets more generally to a question of lying or obfuscating. I’ve asked a number of people this question throughout my life and I’ve generally gotten answers along the lines of:
A) Yes, it’s okay to say you’re fine even if you’re not fine. Whether you’re talking to a passing acquaintance or to someone you’ve known for years, sometimes – especially when you’re not fine – you just don’t want to get into it.
B) Yes, it’s okay to say you’re fine even if you’re not fine. Everyone understands this conversation is just part of the social contract and it isn’t intended to be taken literally. When someone asks, “what’s up?” Only a smart aleck says, “the sky.”
C) No, it’s not okay to say you’re fine if you’re not fine. It’s one thing to not want to get into it with strangers, but if you’re saying you’re fine when you’re not fine, then you are most likely hiding the truth from yourself. That can be unhealthy, you need to be honest with yourself to get better.
D) No, it’s not okay to say you’re fine if you’re not fine. If you’re not fine, then to say otherwise is a lie, and lying is definitively not a good thing. It may even be immoral.
The majority of folks I’ve talked to have been As and Bs – probably why so many people say they’re fine – but there are definitely a few Cs and Ds out there.
But more importantly, you can see how quickly a conversation about this social interaction turns into a conversation about whether or not it’s okay to lie. Almost every time I ask someone why we have this greeting ritual, that’s where the conversation goes. Whether they’re an A,B, C, or D, the conversation inevitably becomes about how to best respond when some casually asks you this serious question.
The morality of lying is a perfectly fine conversation to have, but in this context it misses the point. And that brings me to my next question.
Third, do you care whether or not someone is fine? Asking how someone else is doing is not about you. It’s about them.
So it’s telling that when asking most people how they feel about this awkward “fine” ritual, they immediately go to their own struggles with how to respond. To be clear, I don’t claim to be any different…why do you think I’m interested in this topic in the first place?
But inevitably, as you debate the merits of A, B, C, or D someone will bite their lip and say, “I don’t think I’m supposed to say how I really am. I don’t think they really care.”
And that’s what gets me.
How are you? Shouldn’t be a throw away question. If you’re going to ask, listen to the response. Ask a follow up. Show that you really do care.
I used to play with this when I was younger. Someone would ask how I was and I’d say, “I don’t know, are you asking to be polite or are you asking because you actually want to know?” I don’t think you’re supposed to say things like that. And judging from the stunned silence or stammering I’d receive in response, I don’t think most people knew how to respond. It is, after all, impolite to say you’re just being polite.
I had similar experiments telling people I was fantastic! or terrible, ecstatic or distraught. No one knew how to respond to any of them. People recovered from the surprise of an overly positive response sooner, but there was still that moment of doubt where you could see them recalculating the conversation in their head.
So what I really wonder is, fourth, why do people ask in the first place? I get that it’s a social norm and a ritualistic greeting we’ve all acclimated to, but if you really don’t care how someone’s doing – just don’t ask.
Frankly, I’d prefer someone start a conversation by yelling, “I don’t care how you’re doing!” before launching into whatever they want to talk to me about. I’d be okay with that. I’d probably find it amusing. It’s okay with me if you don’t really care, but if that’s where you’re at, let’s go ahead and drop the pretense.
And we should all be mindful of the risk of pretense when we ask others how they’re doing.
If the opposite of a friend is a flatterer, than we must all be wary. Not only of the flatterers, but of being flatterers ourselves.