"New sun, new air, new sky. A whole universe teeming with life. Why stand still when there's all that life out there?" -The Doctor
"Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have." -Unknown

Monday, November 15, 2010

How are you?: A Rant

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.


  1. I hope you are doing well and feeling good, but in the mean time-

    - how is your stay going
    - are you happy with your job and is it everything you hoped it would be
    - are you still binding books, and if so are you using an amazing German paper
    - what is your favorite thing about Germany
    - what is your favorite spot in Germany and
    - does your roommate really wear only pink socks, and if so can I steal her?

  2. I swear I clicked on it. I just like to finish reading one article, then move to another, then come back to the first if I have to. It makes more sense in my brain this way.

    Also, I totally agree with you on the lie/truth debate. Often I don't want to answer this question. It has too many potential meanings. However, I am totally guilty of asking it. Probably exactly because it has so many potential meanings. "How are you?" not only indicates that you should reveal emotional status but it also is related to "How have you been?" with the corresponding request for life details. It's miserable to be asked this question if you've not been around the person recently, because then you have to drudge up all the things that happened last week that you are no longer aware of--yet the other person wants just this information. They are asking you to pick out what you are willing to share about your life. Again, my problem often is a lack of memory for these details. I find myself listing off events (very boring and emotion-free) or going through them one by one ("oh, and this happened also..."). To conclude on this point, I use the question with an expectation that the individual will reply with relevent life experiences that are either too big to ignore or that they have chosen to talk about. And of course, the asker often wants your emotional state if they aren't around you regularly and are essentially doing an emotion check. In the reverse: my emotions are private and sometimes hard to identify... and I may not feel comfortable with pressing that boundary. I often fold under the socially acceptable lie. :Z

    P.S. I miss you. And at my peril, because I love peril: "How are you?"

  3. I just wrote a really long reply that the Internet promptly deleted. I shall rewrite it at some point in the future.

  4. Jana--
    My stay is going well. My job is okay; I definitely struggle with getting the students interested and involved in learning English at all, much less coming up with something clever and original to do.
    I haven't done any bookbinding since I got here, although I brought all my tools with. I don't have easy access to the materials I'd need, but I have seen several bookbinding shops around the cities, so I'll have to go and see if I can find something to work with! :)
    My favorite thing about Germany is speaking German with friendly, patient people. I've found several, although I don't get to spend as much time with them as I'd like. Right now, my favorite place in Germany is a little bench on the top of a hill on the side of field outside of town. I took a very nice hike out there and admired the town from a distance. The Coffee Culture coffee shop in Jena, with delicious drinks and comfy sofas, is a close second.
    My roommate really does only wear pink socks, and you're welcome to her if you 1) come here and get her and 2) can afford to keep her; she drinks a LOT of tea. ;)
    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful answer. I agree with you wholeheartedly. My hatred of this question is pretty specific to people I know well and see often; I can hardly expect acquaintances to know details of my life (although, through FB, I suppose that's definitely possbile). It really comes down to that I just want people to magically know exactly what questions I do and don't want to answer at any particular moment, which is a bit unfair, I know, but I might as well acknowledge the truth. :)