I’ve never liked the question, “How are you?”
For one, it’s an empty greeting. Most people who ask don’t care about the response.
Second, it’s the most open-ended question in the world. There’s no right way to answer it.
In the 1 in 100 cases where the person asking actually wants to hear a legitimate response, where do you even begin? Your day? Your weekend? Your relationship? Your job? Your childhood? That severe mood spiral that happened last week which somehow ended with you impulse buying a new coat and two cases of wine, then making new friends with strangers on your block? Is that the story you’re asking me to retell for you right now?
“How are you?”
How am I in this particular second, as I read your face and try to discern whether or not you actually care about my response to this question? Or how was I 10 seconds ago, when I seized up with anxiety at the thought of entering this meeting?
I swear I’m not just overthinking this to be difficult. The world inside my head can change a hell of a lot in 10 seconds. Trust me. You do not want to get in there.
“How are you?”
Okay, and I thank you for asking, but before I really get down into it, I just need to know: Why are you asking, really?
Are you running this meeting and feeling a little nervous about it so making some small talk with everyone who comes in the room? Did you just have an amazing holiday weekend away that you’re dying to talk about but don’t want to come across too strong, so you’re doing the polite thing by asking everybody else about their weekends first? Or did you just come out of meeting where someone might have implied that I’ve been a little stressed out lately and this is your way of sussing that out to my face?
Wait. Do I look stressed out? Are you one of the people who can tell? Maybe I need more coffee.
“How are you?”
Alright but — how much time do we have? I mean, I’m happy to share details about my life with you, but I need to know how to structure the length of my story in my answer. Do I have until the next person walks in this room? Until I’m done talking? Or until you’re done listening?
I’m starting to think that the answer to the question, “How are you?” is sort of like the Net Promoter Score of casual conversations. While your answer can vary wildly (kind of like the NPS scale is anywhere from -100 to 100), your baseline doesn’t matter as much as deviations from the norm. Maybe the best listeners are people who can tell the difference between, “I’m good” and “I’m fine.”
So when you’re asking me how I’m doing, are you really just remembering how I answered the last time you asked me and trying to see what’s different now? Ugh, this is getting too complicated. Maybe I should just keep things short.
“I’m good. Thanks!”
“No, I mean… how are you? Really.”
Look, I really want to answer that question. And I know my dodgy attitude is making it look like I have something to hide, but I’m telling you, it’s really not that simple. Yesterday alone, I experienced 80 different emotional states. (And to think — this was on a weekend, no less! On a work day, I might hit 80 states before noon!)
No, I’m not making this up. I happen to know this for a fact because I was bored yesterday afternoon so I decided to rehash my entire day and count them up. My longest state lasted two hours and my shortest lasted 10 seconds. So, when you ask me how I’m doing, are you actually asking me to pick one of those 80 emotional states to generalize myself for you in just one concise sentence?
If that’s the case, I’m I’m fine with that, by the way. But first I just need to know one thing so I can give you the most accurate answer possible: Are you looking for the emotion I felt the most frequently throughout the day or for the emotional state that had the longest duration?
I know it seems overly pedantic, but the answer to one of those questions is “frustration” and the other would be “contentment.” I realize that those may seem like they are on complete opposite spectrums, but I’ll assure you that overall, it was a pretty solid day, so please don’t start worrying about me yet.
“Okay, let’s try something else. Just tell me this. Are you happy?”
WHOA. Okay, you think THAT’S an easier question for me to answer without any warning? That is highly inappropriate, and you are a monster for even bringing that up.
First of all — Unless you’re my therapist, my husband, or my best friend, I’m basically compelled to answer in the affirmative. If I suddenly tell you, “No, I’m not happy,” then it will inevitably trigger all sorts of warning bells and sirens for no good reason. (Which is insane, by the way, because just because a person may not describe themselves as “happy” does not imply, by default, that they are “sad.”)
Second — It’s impossible to answer that question in isolation without you understanding a bit more about my personal baseline and levels of satisfaction. Happy to me is not the same as happy to you. And by the way, why are you asking me this, anyway?
Third — In general, I think we tend to over-dramatize this ideal state of “happiness” as some blissed-out mode where everything is wonderful and you have no stress and no regrets. But as discussed, I go through 80 emotional states in a day. And sure, one of them might be happiness, but as I’m never in any one “mood” for more than a few hours, how on Earth can I generalize in this way?
And by the way, here’s the thing: I’m the kind of person who’s bizarrely motivated by projects that seem impossible, who gets depressed when I don’t have something tricky to work on, and who gets bored when things feel too easy. Would I call it, “happiness” to be in a constant, semi-frenzied state of incremental progress, never accepting satisfaction? Who’s to say? Would you? But I guess it doesn’t really matter. All I know is, to me, that state feels somewhat enjoyable. Which is why I do what I do.
So when you’re asking me if I’m happy, I guess I’ll tell you yes, even if it means that you’re imagining me living my best life on a beach and even if that means for me that I feel like I’m pushing a boulder uphill and I’m not sure when I’ll get tired but so long as it keeps me motivated to aspire for more, I’m good with it.
When you ask me how I’m doing, I guess I’ll tell you that I’m great, but I’ll probably leave out all of the stuff about how I had both the best and worth mental moments in a single weekend and not even bother describing for you that incredible moment of accomplishment I felt when I placed the new flowers I bought at the farmer’s market on my porch and the texture of their leaves balanced out everything in a way that finally felt “complete.” It’s possible you saw the Instagram photo that I spent about 25 minutes trying to get just right, but I’m telling you, it doesn’t do it justice. I know I’m not describing this well, but I’m telling you, that really was a red-letter moment for me. You probably had to be there.
Does that answer your question?
Also published on Medium.