A common question asked on a daily basis is “How are you?” It could show up as “what’s up?” or “how’s it going”. Normally used as a quick greeting with little impulse, the base intention is to show other people that we care about their wellbeing. Asking is innocent enough, but this simple secondary salutation can be loaded question; one that you might not want to hear the answer to or truthfully answer. The problem comes with our go-to answers: “fine”, “good”, or (my personal favorite) “not bad” (as if we’re existing on the rung just above bad).
Under certain circumstances this question is appropriate and the brevity of its answer is just as appropriate. When someone is stressed out about their significant other not texting them back and their boss stops by and asks “how’s it going”, it’s probably best for that person to say “very well” and move on with their day. Another example of implied brevity is when we see an acquaintance on the street. A deep conversation about ours or their wellbeing isn’t necessarily socially expected or needed. The main issue with this scripted song and dance is when we interact with those for whom we do truly care: close friends, lovers, family. In genuine communication, if we ask someone we care for “how are you?” then we need to be truly interested in the answer. If not, we can seem dismissive of their actual feelings. What if they really do need to tell us? Are we asking openly or just out of habit/obligation? Over time, this can slowly and subconsciously shut down the trust between us and that person. (The awkward caveat: if we’re not interested, then don’t ask).
"If someone asks 'how are you?', then we owe it to them to be honest" This street is, of course, two sided. If someone we care for asks “how are you?”, then we owe it to them to be honest. Don’t hold back feelings just because of awkwardness or fear of vulnerability. (Note: if you don’t feel safe being vulnerable with them, then it’s likely you don’t trust them. A reevaluation of your relationship dynamic with the first party might be needed). When they ask about our wellbeing and we reply with the scripted “good” or “fine” then we’re the ones being dismissive, slowly and subconsciously letting them know that we don’t necessarily trust them with our true feelings. So how do we break out of this tired repetition of polite passivity? How can we communicate more clearly and honestly with those whom we love? The short answer is practice. The long answer is by cultivating an acute awareness of our reactive or auto-pilot communication patterns, identifying the ingenuine behavior and then consciously working to change it. If we’re in the asking role, then we should only ask if we have the time and mental-emotional space to listen to and be present with their answer. Perhaps we know that this particular person is going through a rough time, but we’re running late for work. We can gently let them know that we will check in on them later (and then we actually DO check in on them later). If we’re the answering party to this question, we should be open and honest with both ourselves and the questioner. How are you, really? This person (provided they are communicating consciously) is opening a space for us to express ourselves. Perhaps we haven’t considered the truth of our current state, or perhaps we’re downplaying our emotions because we don’t want the other party to feel uncomfortable. An emotion that I’ve found people downplay is their joy. Being expressively happy in Western culture is seen as bizarre and/or a cover-up for deeper suffering. I’ve learned recently to let people know that I’m happy, and for my own sake I tell them WHY I’m happy. Being honest in this way also subconsciously gives the other party permission to express themselves truly back to us, building lasting trust. This change in communication pattern is a practice and sometimes challenging, but as we continue to choose authenticity over brevity/dishonesty, we’ll find that close relationships become closer and those who trust us will trust us even more. Ask “how are you?” openly and honestly, and step out on a limb and answer truthfully next time a loved one asks “hey, how’s it going?”.