“How are you?” “Fine thanks, how are you?” “I’m fine too…”
How many times have you said this and how many times have you meant it?
We have the how-are-you-fine dialogue with almost everyone we meet but rarely want to know how the other person is or give an honest reply ourselves. So why do we do it?
I presume it developed from the formal greeting “how do you do?” The correct response was “how do you do?” back, it was just a way of acknowledging someone and wasn’t meant to be taken literally.
As language became more casual one lot of empty words was replaced by another which might not matter if both conversationalists play by the rules neither expecting an honest reply nor giving one themselves.
But what happens if someone is expressing a genuine interest in the other’s well being or gives a full and honest answer?
There are times when I’ve wanted to break the rules. After my sons died I hated being greeted with “how are you?” and was tempted to ask, “How do you expect me to be?” But fortunately good manners prevailed and I learnt to say “a bit fragile” instead. That was light enough to let someone who had no interest off the hook yet sufficiently open to allow those who cared to take it further.
But it doesn’t take a major crisis to leave you feeling less than fine. It had been one of those days when someone inquired how I was so I told her: one child had a stomach bug, the other had an ear infection, the pet lamb had been in the garden again and I was feeling decidedly over stretched.
She looked at me in surprise then smiled sympathetically and admitted she too was below par because the family cat had just died. Because I had answered honestly she’d been able to do likewise and we parted feeling better for the exchange.
However, we both had the time and inclination for a proper conversation and we knew each other well enough to be frank. But why do total strangers insist on greeting people with “how are you?” when even if they are interested there is no time to reply?
Shop assistants are the worst offenders. I realise it must be difficult to spend your working life being pleasant to the general public, but it is possible to greet people politely without asking about their well being.
What’s wrong with just saying “hello”?
I’m as guilty of asking questions I don’t want answered as anyone else. But I am making a concerted effort to eliminate empty phrases from my conversation so when I answered the telephone yesterday I resisted the temptation to ask how the caller was and just said, “Hello Murray.” To which he replied, “I’m fine thanks.”
So you see, not only are people not interested in the answer they don’t even listen to the question.