Monday, December 14, 2009

How Are You?

The question, "How are you?" is a common greeting among people I know. The expected answer is, "I'm fine, how are you?" I find I sometimes surprise people when, instead of giving the expected answer, I say, "I'm doing great!" This is generally the most authentic short answer I can give, since my life really is much better than I ever would have expected. It's not that everything is perfect, but all the most important pieces are in place: The world's best husband, a great community, friends, mostly healthy family, full employment, etc.

A friend of mine told me recently how much she dislikes the "How are you?" greeting, since most people seem to ask it in passing and then rush on without even pausing to hear the answer. If you're not going to stick around for an answer, why ask?

A woman who lost her husband about six months previously spoke to my Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick) group about what to say and what not to say to a person in mourning. She said the one question she wishes people would stop asking her is, "How are you?" She says she doesn't feel comfortable answering, "Fine" when that's not how she feels, yet she knows most people who ask the question aren't really interested in hearing her real answer to it.

Another person in the group related a story about a family she recently visited who were sitting shiva (the first seven days of mourning after a loved one has died). She said part way through the evening the husband taped a hand-written sign to the door saying, "Please don't ask me how I'm doing." I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to try to respond to that question when one is in mourning, particularly in the first days and weeks, when the mourner is still struggling to understand the enormous change that has occurred.

Aside from greeting mourners and friends with something more along the lines of, "It's good to see you," or some such statement rather than a question, I don't know what I plan to do with this whole "How are you?" question. It is still part of the oil that keeps the social machine running. Substituting something like, "Greetings and salutations" is a bit awkward. I guess it's something I'll just have to work on.


  1. Thank you for these insights, Sue. I have struggled with the same questions. I've avoided the issue sometimes by commenting on the weather or the time left in the work day -- but those weren't satisfactory substitutes. It had not occurred to me to say something different, like "It's great to see you!" A much better greeting! Thanks.

    Arlene Joyce

  2. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it!