Confession: I have never understood our solicitous obsession with enquiring about each other’s state of being. It’s always the first thing we ask: “How are you?”
The tone changes; the words never do. I say it as often as anybody, but I think it a peculiar piece of civility.
We ask it in letters; we ask it on the phone; we ask it in person—whether we are meeting up for the first time in a year or the sixteenth time in a week. We type it; we murmur it; we call it out. We throw it over our shoulder at total strangers.
We are always seeking this crucial piece of information.
I wonder that we never ask a person what he is, or why he is; it’s always how he is, specifically. Only sometimes, like Eeyore, we’re “not very how… don’t seem to have felt at all how for a long time.”
Why do we do it? Perhaps it’s a taste test, a sample of the conversation to come. Perhaps it’s a steam vent and we are carefully regulating the valve, seeing if things are about to blow up. Perhaps it’s just a habit, something we say without thinking; but I often hear it spoken with real interest and excitement, sometimes even as a prompt for a full soul disclosure: “How ARE you?”
Some of us get so tired of answering this question that we come up with a brilliant answer, unique to us. I have a friend who always says she’s marvelous—a perfect description of either joy or sarcasm, or any mixture of the two. I have a cashier who comes up with a different word every day. I’m excellent peachy wonderful superb first-rate terrific splendid marvelous fabulous fantastic excellent outstanding.
But most of us answer thoughtlessly because we think that’s what’s expected; which does beg the question—is there any meaning to the exchange at all?
I’m fine, how are you? (What are we talking about?)
I’m fine, how are you? (I’m dying here, but you wouldn’t care about that, would you?)
Ironically, I’m fine spoken in a particular tone is Mrs. Zook code for Get out of the kitchen quickly before I throw something at you. And Mr. Zook knows it.
What do you think? Why do we do it?