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“Hey, how are you”: an experiment

| Tuesday, March 4, 2014

One of the things I liked most about Notre Dame when I first arrived as a freshman was how friendly everyone seemed. Whether it was a guy from my dorm who I knew very well or someone else I had met only fleetingly around campus on a weekend, students went out of their way to say hello and ask me how I was doing.

Maybe it was the conditioning that resulted from four years at a large public high school that left me so surprised that people would be so friendly to someone they barely even knew, but I was continually surprised by the kindness of those around me.

As I met more people, however, I quickly came to realize the “Hey, how are you?” questions I was receiving were more of an instinctive response than anything else. It comes out as kind of a knee-jerk response when you see someone you know or are friends with, and I include myself in this phenomenon.

Of course, saying “How are ya?” — even if on instinct and without knowing it — reflects the fact that you are trying to be friendly and welcoming to those you meet, even if just for a second or two. I have found, however, oftentimes people ask this question and are unprepared for the response they may receive.

I’ve talked to quite a few people who say, when posed this simple question, they simply smile and respond with “I’m good, and you?” even though they may be feeling another, less agreeable way. This practice — outright lying to the person who is trying to ask how you are doing — perplexes me.

Always one to speak my mind, I tend to tell people who ask how I am feeling how I actually feel — shocker, right? If I’m sick, I tell them I’m sick. If I’m stressed, I tell them I’m stressed. If I’m loving life — which is usually the case, because life is indeed quite lovable — then I’ll gladly proclaim it. And while the latter tends to elicit positive vibes from my peers, the former often leads to an awkward “oh” and “that’s too bad.”

Again, my “just okay” days are vastly outnumbered by my “everything’s awesome” days, but a question began to fester in my head: Why bother asking a question if you’re not prepared for the answer you’ll get?

Experts and onlookers alike have cited young people’s apathy for the feelings of others as one of the biggest problems in dealing with depression and self-image issues in teens. Many victims of these afflictions testify that their peers don’t understand what they’re going through and, worse yet, don’t even make the attempt to understand.

Being a science major, I decided to perform a little experiment to test the following hypothesis: If the fleeting interactions I have with others are just that — fleeting and disingenuous — then if I were to tell everyone who asked one particular day that I was having a really rough, horrible day, at the end of said day no one would take notice.

I chose a Thursday in particular to increase the likelihood that I would actually feel the way I was saying I felt because those tend to be the heaviest days of my week. To control lurking variables — i.e. outside influences — I decided to only tell people I was doing “bad” when prompted by a “Hey, how are you?”

So, from my 9:30 Gen Chem lab straight through to my 6:30 p.m. Chem tutorial, I proceeded with my experiment throughout the day, aided by the fact that I actually came down with a cold the day before. I got the responses I expected: “Get better!” and “Spring Break is almost here!”

However, what surprised me the most about my experience actually happened after my experiment had concluded. Apparently it came down through the grapevine that I was having a so-so day on Thursday, so come Friday some people were asking me if I was feeling any better, on a much deeper and more personal level than a passing question.

In conclusion, the results of my extremely scientific and well-thought-out experiment — hint: That is meant to be read sarcastically — were this: people apparently do care when they ask how you’re doing: the fact that a second degree of separation occurred between me and someone who asked me the next day how I was feeling evidences this.

The biggest caveat, however, is this is only possible when we are active participators in the lives of others, when we dig a little deeper, even when it might take the extra effort and to reach out to another person who might be in need. It is then when we will have meaningful conversations and find the actual answer to “Hey, 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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