I’m trudging across a slushy parking lot when an acquaintance hurries by and says, “Hi! How are you?” I say, “Great! How are you,” like I just won the lottery. Except I’m not fine.
I had minor foot surgery in December, so I’ve been wearing a surgical shoe for a month. It’s black, open-toed and very attractive. (I’m kidding.) My foot hurts. The medical bills are starting to roll in and an open-toed shoe isn’t ideal for tromping through ice and snow. So no, I’m not fine. Nor do I particularly care how she is at the moment.
She’s also fine. Or at least she says she is, and then she hurries by. We could have just said hello. That’s what we meant. But I can’t just say hello. In fact, when I greet someone, what I usually say is, “Hey, how are ya,” except it’s one long word — heyhowareya, like a lake in Hawaii.
Almost everyone I know greets other people with some version of how are you — how’s it goin’, how ya doin’, how the heck are you — whether they want to know or not.
And almost everyone I know has a pat response: Fine. Good. Great! A few people have more creative answers: “I’m so good, it should be illegal.” Or, “If I were any better, I could be arrested.” I want to smack them, then they definitely wouldn’t be fine.
The whole ritual is so automatic that I can envision me coming across someone who’s just fallen off a ladder and saying, “Heyhowareya.” Worse, I can see them answering, “Fine. Could you call an ambulance please?”
I guess there’s no real harm in the practice. We can safely assume that most of the time “how are you” is the equivalent of saying “hello” and that “fine” is just another way to say “hi” back. Most of us are aren’t expecting honesty when we ask someone how they are, nor are we always honest when we’re asked. If we were, our response might be something like, “You really want to know how I am? You don’t have that kind of time.”
I suppose we could be more honest on both sides of the question. “I don’t have time to talk, so I’m not going to ask how you are, but I really do care.”
“No problem. I’ll call you later.”
Or, if we do have time, we might say, “How are you — really?”
“I’d be better if my shoulder wasn’t acting up, my kids behaved and I had more money in my bank account.
“Tell me more. Let’s start with your shoulder.”
You do see this kind of honesty occasionally. Once at the grocery store, I greeted a man I barely know with my standard, “Heyhowareya?” And he said, “Not well. Not well at all.” And by the time I finally left him, neither was I.
Maybe more than honesty, we need awareness. If he’d been more aware, the man at the grocery store might have noticed that my ice cream was melting, my perishables were perishing and my eyes were glazing over while he was filling me in.
I recently saw an acquaintance who I’d heard has been quite ill. If I’d been paying more attention, I might have asked, “How are you doing?” in a gentle way like a friend instead of “Heyhowareya,” with all the enthusiasm of a game show host.
I really do want to know how you are when I have the time to listen and, if it’s not well, I want to know exactly why. I’m snoopy that way.
And as for me, I’m OK, but I’ll be better when I can wear my regular shoe again. And yes, I realize you didn’t ask. But I know you will the next time I see you.
Dorothy Rosby is the author of the humor book “I Didn’t Know You Could Make Birthday Cake from Scratch: Parenting Blunders from Cradle to Empty Nest.” Contact [email protected]