Oh dear. Last post was in August. Oops.
At some point in the near future (promises, promises, right?) I shall actually post something of substance and--if we are all very lucky--interest on this here blog o' mine. For now, all you get is a rant. Sorry.
I have recently (re)discovered my pathological hatred of the phrase "How are you?" Now, I understand that this is not actually a request for information, any more than the British "Cold today, isn't it?" is a remark about the weather. It is a social lubricant, a ritualized and therefore safe and nonthreatening way to begin a conversation. This is fine so far; I don't have any trouble with this phrase when people who don't know me use it. They don't know me, so what else are they going to say?
What bothers me is when people ask me this who know me, know what's going on in my life, live in the same building with me, whatever, and still insist on asking the same damn question every time they see me. I can't help it; I'm a literal person. Language is not something you toss away at random. When someone speaks to me, I want to analyze, question, poke and test, see the way the facets of meaning and emotion reflect and refract truth. So, in an interpersonal context, I have to interpret "How are you?" as a genuine request for information, also because the I-don't-know-you-well-but-I-have-to-say-something stage is pretty long over.
The difficulty with "How are you?" is twofold. First, if you really know me, you should be able to ask about particulars: "How was your lesson today?" "Traveled anywhere recently?" "How's your German coming?" "What did you do at Bienenkunde?" Asking "How are you?" is a cop-out; it means you don't really want to know what my life is like; you just feel like you have to ask.
The other problem is that "How are you?" is, despite its highly ritualized common use, a very personal question. The ones listed in the above paragraph are safer; one can safely talk about one's travels, or language development, without delving into emotional details, if one so wishes. These questions say, "I'm interested in and paying attention to what's important in your life, but I'll let you decide how much emotional information you want to share." On the other hand, when "How are you?" is employed interpersonally and therefore interpreted as a request for information, it is, at least in my view, a somewhat intrusive inquiry about one's current mental and emotional state. The joke answer "F.I.N.E." (freaked out, insecure, neurotic, emotional) tells you that this question expects a personal answer. The problem is that I and, I assume, other people, don't always want to express their precise emotional state for various reasons: they may be feeling an emotion that would be awkward or difficult to share, they may be upset and trying to deal with it, they may not be feeling anything at all at the moment, they may simply wish to be left alone. "How are you?" expects an emotion-based answer, which the other person may not want to give. The way I see it, there are only two possible responses to this question: you can lie, or you can tell the truth.
"I'm fine, thanks," is always always always a lie. It's a preprogrammed response to a ritualized question. It doesn't mean anything. As I said, in anonymous situations, where the two interlocutors don't know each other personally and are, most likely, never going to, ritualized is fine; it makes it easier for everyone. In an interpersonal context, a pat answer like this does not mean I'm actually fine. It's code for "I have absolutely no desire to talk about it right now." It's even more irritating because I am then socially obligated to respond with a reciprocal question, and if I'm in a "Fine, thanks" kind of state of mind, I have no interest at all in how you are at the moment. But I have to ask anyway, which in my mind means I am requesting information, which means that I am communicating to you that I have an interest in knowing how you are, which is a trite, easy, and totally infuriating lie as well. When the conversation ends a short while later, I have not only not learned anything new about the other person, I have the added thorn in my conscience of having lied to someone to get rid of them.
The other option is to tell the truth, assuming that telling the truth is actually desirable at the moment (which, as mentioned above, it often isn't). In my case, telling the truth in a "how are you?" situation would look something like this. Did you read the whole thing? Did you read the first bit? Did you even click on it? If not, congratulations, you're like most of the planet; no one except my mother and possibly my close friends wants to hear this stuff, and most of them still go all glaze-eyed halfway through.
So, to recap: in response to a "How are you?" question, I can either lie or tell the truth. If I lie, then I get to feel guilty about lying and blowing someone off. If I tell the truth, I get to bore someone else with the petty concerns of my mind and feel awkward about the idea that the things that are so important to me don't matter at all to someone else. This is assuming, of course, that I'm actually in the mood to talk about the constant stream of thoughts and emotions flowing through my head, as they flow through everyone's, throughout the day, which I often am not.
In conclusion: "How are you?" is a minefield for me. I hate being asked this question and I hate having to decide how to answer. If you don't know me, feel free to use it; you will get the standard, completely untrue answer that is totally unrelated to me or my life.
If you do know me, use it at your own peril.