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How are you?

| Thursday, September 7, 2017

How often do you hear the words: “How are you?” A friend who recently counted was asked this question seven times on a single walk from DeBartolo to Cavanaugh, and she responded “good” every time. I think this is problematic. You’ll want to know why.

Before I explain why, though, we have to agree on what this question means. To avoid any potential disputes, I’ll be as black and white as possible. It begins with the interrogative word “how,” then employs the verb “are” and finally wraps up with the subject “you.” Simply put, then, the purpose of “how are you?” must be to ask how you are being or doing, and without any other specifics, it seems safe to assume that the scope of the question is life-at-large. Thus, “how are you?” could be equivalently rephrased as “how is your existence is going?”

Now I’ll admit that this language makes it sound like a rather indefinite inquiry, as opposed to something more solid like “what’s the Wi-Fi password?” But isn’t that the point? People are dynamic, complex and emotional creatures who are constantly trying to stay afloat in the eddy of opportunity and challenge that is life, so an open-ended question about how that experience is going should rarely elicit an easy, simple or stagnant answer. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad to just be “good” sometimes, or wrong to say the same thing twice when people ask us how we are, but I do think it illuminates a problem with the way we’ve been using this phrase.

When used properly, “how are you?” should open a portal into ourselves, allowing the person asking to peer in and empathize with our current state of existence, and reminding people being asked to check in on their selves and introspectively assess how they’re actually doing at that time. When tossed around as a casual, common courtesy, however, it becomes no more than a percussive beat to which we march from one part of our day to the next. What’s worse, this reasonless rhythm effectively alienates us from one another and from ourselves.

For example, imagine having a horrible day and being asked “how are you?” This should be an invaluable invitation to self-reflect and process things in the company of someone who clearly cares about your well-being. But is this what it feels like when a passerby reflexively asks “how you are?” If we continue to misuse “how are you?” in this way, as an automatic filler between hollow hellos and silent goodbyes, we will only be widening the void between how we really are and how others understand we are. So how do we fix this?

To begin, I believe that we should treat each social interaction as a unique event. Rather than running on autopilot when we encounter someone else, we should legitimately ask ourselves whether or not we genuinely care about how that person is doing, and if we have time to hear it. If either answer is no, but we still want to say something, we should ask them a shorter question instead, like “what planet would you spend a week on?” or “what color is love to you?” or “what would a painting of your conscious mind look like?” And if that’s too much because we’re only passing by each other, we should avoid questions all together and simply wish one other a happy day instead.

Secondly, we should start using “how are you?” the way it’s supposed to be used. We should take two minutes out of our day to stop someone we care about and say, “No, really, how are you?” Then, we should genuinely listen when they respond and through the process, begin to better understand the true emotional climate around campus.

Finally, when people ask us how we are, we should be honest with them. We should pause upon hearing the question, look inward, actually figure out how we are at that particular moment in time, and then do our best to translate whatever we find into words that can convey that discovery to them. This will probably catch people off guard at first, and it might even make them uncomfortable, but that’s a good thing. It’s impossible to get better without enduring some level of discomfort, and we need to get better. We need to create more space for people to honestly express and understand themselves, and we can start to do that by changing the way we say “how are you?”

So, really, how are you?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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