The Tyranny of “How are you?”

When I moved to Chicago several years ago I started noticing people greet me with the question, “How are you?” (or “How is it going?” or “How are you doing?”). While at first this was a seemingly innocuous question, the more I answered this question flippantly or half-heartedly the more that I began to struggle with the intention behind the question.

If we take “How are you?” as more than just a meaningless rhetorical question, then it is truly a bold and presumptuous greeting. Within seconds of seeing my face, my greeters are asking a probing question regarding my well being. Buried in this innocent question, is a status update of my life, emotions, job functioning, family, etc. If I worked in a small office or worked for myself perhaps this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But as I walk around the hospital multiple times a day, I am hearing this question 10-20 times per day. The more times and the more that I considered this greeting, the more that it bothered me.

Honesty vs. “How are you?”

Some of my biggest values as a therapist and as a person are to be genuine and honest. This question/greeting often conflicts with both of these. As a therapist, my words are my tool to communicate my thoughts and feelings to the world. My words are the tool I use to help clients navigate their world. I take my words very seriously. In times of life when I am doing and feeling well, I can perhaps honestly answer this question, “I’m good!”

But this response may not feel genuine, since good is perhaps only a fraction of what is really going on in my life. It seems like a half-hearted and incomplete response to a big question. Then there is the follow-up pressure to ask them the same question back, “How are you?”, even though I know that I may not have the time or emotional energy to truly follow-up to their response. But if I don’t reply back with the question, it seems like I’m a jerk or I don’t care about them. So we find ourselves in this script that plays out predictably, forcing happiness and compliance upon our greetings.

If I was true to both, I would answer that I am barely dragging myself through the day.

In times when I am not doing or feeling so well and someone asks me “How are you?”, the question becomes that much more difficult. When I am asked this question in passing by someone who means well, it becomes difficult to be honest or genuine.

If I was true to both, I would answer that I am barely dragging myself through the day. I didn’t sleep well and am feeling pretty depressed today. What happens then? Perhaps more questions about what’s causing my feelings. Perhaps a quick platitude that they hope I am feeling better. It’s a toss up, but it’s usually not helpful.

My other option is to be dishonest about my feelings. This makes sense on one level, since I don’t owe others an explanation of my feelings. However, this dishonesty also goes against my values. Which then makes me feel worse about myself and my current feelings. Ugh!

“Hi” is Enough of a Greeting

So what am I suggesting? First, “Hi” or “Hello” truly is enough of a greeting. We don’t have to lurch into half-hearted checking in for the sake of nicety. We have had much discussion and consternation regarding the problems of political correctness. While that is another debate entirely, I do believe that there is something to the debate for truth in our language. I believe that we can be more emotionally genuine and honest in our greetings with others. What that means for me is that I am going to stop asking others “How are you?” when I don’t have the time or energy to hear the answer. I will stick to a “Hi” or perhaps even a “Hope you’re well” or “Good to see you” to cheer it up a bit. When the time is right I want to ask people “How are you?” But when I do so, I am genuinely prepared to respond to their answer.

Be Prepared for a Real Answer

I am also going to up my emotional honesty to others. Every time that I am capable of answering that question from others, I will honestly do so. When the time is right, that conversation could help me work through my feelings and communicate them to someone else. When the timing doesn’t feel right to me I may answer, “I’m feeling pretty down today, but that’s part of being human. I would rather talk about something else if that’s okay.” My guess is that this might be a little awkward the first few times I try it out, but should get easier with time.

We should all be prepared for a real answer when asking “How are you?”

We should all be prepared for a real answer when asking “How are you?” If someone does let you into their world including both positive and negative feelings, know that you don’t have to fix their feelings. You don’t even have to apologize for them. Give the other person some control about how you could help them. Let them know you care how they feel or how they are struggling and offer to help. By all means, don’t feel like you need to stop checking in on me or asking “How are you?” But just know that I hope you’re sitting down when you ask.    

Filed under Mental Health, Relationships, Work

Dr. Ryan Hooper is a Board Certified Clinical Psychologist, practicing in Chicago. He is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine as well as University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Medicine. He has worked with clients from many different backgrounds including veterans and professional athletes, as well as clients experiencing a wide-range of mental health struggles including Depressive and Anxiety Disorders, Substance Use Disorders, Trauma-related Disorders, and Psychotic Disorders.