Do you really want an answer?
When Emily Post taught me my manners, she made it very clear that when you greet someone, you say those words. Unconditionally.
The only time I ever gave any thought to that was when I didn’t ask and my mother would embarrass the shit out of me, “And now what do you say?”
She never actually smacked me on the back of the head, but the utter humiliation of being publicly corrected felt like it. We are Italian, but classy ones.
So one day, years later, pregnant, pushing a small child around the City Market in the cart shaped like a car that doesn’t do anything but run into things as you round a corner, I was face to face over a bunch of Granny Smiths with one of the employees.
“Hi. How are you?”
“You don’t really care, do you. Why bother asking? People always ask that question out of habit, not out of actual caring. You probably don’t really want to know the answer – you don’t know me, why would you want to know?”
Stunned? Yes. Humiliated? Absolutely. Questioning my very existence? For sure.
Silenced, I tried to maneuver my belly, cart and child right on out of there and only got as far as slamming into the banana stand.
I went home, licked my wounds and tried to reconcile that I had been called a shallow, uncaring member of the masses.
You know, though, part of me believed him – we do just habitually ask that question, either not caring about the answer, or worse, hoping that the answer will be one of the following four-letter words: fine, good, well (the grammatically correct and therefore most hoped-for response).
Do you ever truly want to hear someone whom you don’t know all that well say, “Actually, thanks for asking, my life is an utter shit show”?
But, after thinking about it between that afternoon and my next trip to the grocery store, I realized that sometimes, I do want to know – maybe not all of the dirty laundry needs to be aired in the produce aisle (the ice-cream section is much more appropriate for that) – but “fine” is boring. If I am going to bring myself to actually interact with people, I want those moments to have some substance.
Because I have so few face-to-face communiqués with folks, I want to walk away from one feeling like I’ve gotten something out of it.
So I marched into the City Market the next week and when I finally made my way ’round to the spinach and saw my guy, I bellied right up and said, “You know what, I did want to know. I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want an honest answer.”
Not sure who was more flabbergasted. He probably thought, “Oh, dear God, another overly hormonal crazy pregnant gal.”
But from that point forward, I’ve tried to be more deliberate in my asking of and answering to that question.
If someone doesn’t want to hear anything but “I am well,” then they shouldn’t ask.
Obviously there are those times when one must do what is socially proper – I can’t totally throw out all of Ms. Post’s teachings, but more often than not, I find myself being just a little bit more honest when I respond.
And when I ask, I find myself hoping that there will be a little humanness in the response.
But there is also a line over which I have no interest in stepping.
So, say this evening, someone asked me, via text, “How are you, friend?”
I am completely stumped. How can I answer that inquiry in a text?
I can just see the look of dread rolling across the recipient’s face before they don’t write back.
“You know…it depends on what day, or really what time of day, you ask.”
“Sort of great, sort of stressed, sort of content and then there’s that Wanderlust.”
Do I assume that the asker of the dreaded question has arrived at the same place as I in that he wants to know the truth, he wants to know how I am at that particular moment?
Or do I write back, “Great. Just had a dinner date with my three favorite boys,” and leave it at that and not even touch on my stress around those same three favorite boys, my job, money and cleaning my house?
Do I tell that person that I have just put on my nightgown inside out (because no one is going to see me) and added my favorite royal-blue fleece sweatpants and I am going to crawl into bed, eat massive amounts of dark chocolate and read about the adorable Prince George’s trip Down Under until I start snoring and drooling?
Tonight I got so stuck in trying to answer honestly without over-sharing, that I ended up not responding at all.
Guess that answers that question. Sometimes people, in talking about what makes a good conversationalist, will say, “She always asks interesting questions.”
But it isn’t always necessarily the question that determines whether the exchange will be interesting or boring, sometimes it’s the answer.
If the best you can do is “Good,” then, sure, “How are you?” is pretty damn dull. But if someone asks that question and you are a little bit willing to share, then it can be a great lead-in to something fulfilling for both of you.
If, on the other hand, you respond like my now-friend at the grocery store did, you know that you are at least sending the inquirer home with something about which to think.
Or, like me, tonight, you can not reply at all, thus creating an air of great mystery, leaving the other person wondering, “Are things so great (or awful) that she can’t even answer?”
“Maybe she is in Eleuthera and didn’t get my text. Lucky gal.”
“Maybe she’s got a hot guy over there – I’ll hear from her later, when she’s finished, I guess.”
Or, “Maybe she is so miserable that she is under the covers, sobbing her little eyes out, wiping snot on her cat.”
Only one of those responses holds any possibility, but the asker of the question doesn’t have to know that.
This stumped-ness all leads to an utter inability to answer with ease because everything has been over-thought and now sounds contrived. So I don’t respond.
Oh, the power of a text.
But then Emily Post is back knocking at my door, demanding a bit of my time. “You must respond. It is extremely rude not to.”
“Fine, thank you. How are you?” is the etiquettely correct response (without which, my childhood self was guaranteed another emotional slap on the back of the head.) But who actually speaks that way these days?
And, boy, does that bring us back into the realm of boring.
Unless of course, it leads to a discussion that begins with, “Who the hell raised you, Jane Austen?”
Hell’s Bells. Apparently there isn’t a simple solution to answering probably the most frequently asked, and should-be-simple, question in the world.
Suzanne Strazza writes from Mancos, Colo. She just placed second in the category of “personal/ humor columns” in the 2014 Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies competition.