How are you?

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?

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9 years ago

I’ve wondered the same thing quite often. I know for myself, it is usually just a habit. I figured it out when I am caught off guard by someone who answers in a unique fashion. Often I didn’t even think about what I was saying! (Probably something I do too often!

My husband’s co-worker ALWAYS answers this question with “I’m blessed.” And it always makes me step back and think, “Oh, yeah. So am I. How did I forget.”

9 years ago

I admit. I just asked this last night, like “How ARE you?” And we had a great chat after that. She did admit that she really didn’t know “how” she was. And I apologized for asking that all-encompassing question!

I guess we use it as an invitation– especially when we really want to know, and depending if we really wait for an answer, or if we really look at the person we’re asking– the person can choose for themselves how to answer.

I’ve occasionally tried to slowly, quietly answer this in a fading voice as the person hurries on– so as not to say “fine” or “good” on those days I can’t truthfully say so. I guess some people don’t really want to know, and sometimes we really don’t feel like telling. Is that okay? Is it alright to tell a little white lie to save face, time, anger, or emotion?

9 years ago

It seems to be the polite thing to do, although I would say that it sometimes seems pointless. When the other person is asking simply because that’s what you say when you meet someone, I think it’s perfectly fine to give the minimum answer; otherwise, you only invite unneeded (& unwanted) criticism.

It’s kind of fun to give an off-the-wall answer and watch people’s responses 🙂 Like an above comment says, “I’m blessed” is always a great answer to remind myself and others of what really matters!

9 years ago

I’m howling at your last little paragraph. Tone does make ALL the difference. 🙂

It’s just feels so marvy to be doing marvelous all.the.time.

9 years ago

It’s a greeting. Find myself asking and answering that question many times a week at the store with customers. If I don’t shoot the question first, they do!

My boss’ favorite way of answering is “We’re blessed and highly favored of the Lord!”

9 years ago

Yup, the whole family knows about that tone of voice…but the “how are you” question is even more over-done in China…the normal greeting “ni-hao” actually is the question “you good?”..or maybe a command depends on the tone of voice

9 years ago

TRADITION. 😉 (Said in the exact right tone of voice from Fiddler on the Roof) On a more serious note, when I say it to someone I know, I really do usually want to know. 😉

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