Recently I greeted a newish acquaintance that I had not seen around in several weeks. I asked her how she had been, or how things were going, or something to that effect.
Maybe it was the way she said, “OK.” Maybe it was because I’d been listening with my heart and not my ears. Or maybe it was my own heart, vibrating at a frequency of sadness, which picked up the melancholy beat of hers. Maybe it was the way her eyes said to mine, “I’m not OK.”
I’m certain she expected me to respond, “Good!” and cheerily dismiss her on her way. But I didn’t. Instinctively I drew her to me in a hug. Almost instantly I could feel her shoulders shaking as she let out the tears that had been dammed behind her public facade.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I feel sad a lot.”
I asked her if she had depression, or if something was going on. She proceeded to tell me a little bit about her situation. I asked her if there was anything I could do for her, or anything she needed.
“I guess just support,” she replied.
I offered a listening ear if she ever wanted one, and then she was off, presumably on her way back to the situation that was making her sad a lot.
Maybe she believed I truly cared and was making an honest offer; maybe she thought I was just blowing smoke. It doesn’t matter. The point is that when I asked her how she was, I truly wanted to know. The exchange took all of two minutes, if that.
Why do we feel obligated to ask people, “How are you?” if we don’t want an honest answer? When did “How are you?” evolve into “Hello, I acknowledge your presence; now scram”? How did the question become so diluted and the answer so watered down? We live with the reality that when people ask us how we are, we expect that they don’t want to hear the truth. We assume they don’t want to know how we really feel – – that they just want to hear an “I’m fine” and move on. The truth would take too long; it would be too complicated; it would reveal who we truly are.
It would also allow us to get to know each other as whole people, not merely as categories to be boxed, labeled, and generalized away.
I get it: in certain situations, places, or because of time constraints, it is not appropriate to disclose our true feelings when asked how we are. Nor would it be appropriate for us to ask. Could we then come up with a new greeting? Perhaps something along the lines of, “Hello! Nice to see you!”
We are all guilty of the “How are you?” “I’m fine” call and response. Next time you run into someone you know, take a moment to assess your situation and formulate an appropriate and honest greeting. If you have the extra few minutes and the authentic inclination to know how a person really is, don’t settle for a dismissive answer. You will probably be surprised at the results.