Three Little Words - How Do We Answer?

Three Little Words:
How Do We Answer?

In one of my graduate counseling degree programs we saw a video in class one night. Two men were walking down the street before work one morning. Passing each other, one said “Good morning, how are you?” the other said, “Well, I’m not so good today…” The other guy kept walking. The guy who first answered the question said “You’ve been asking me every day for twenty years how I am. I now decided to answer you, and you don’t want to know? You don’t want to hear my answer?” The other guy paused, turned around and said, “No, not really.”

Maybe you’ve have heard and done this.

“Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” “Fine, how are you?”

Oops! It’s looping, and it’s perhaps on autopilot!

There are some other interesting ways people answer this question.

1. With a question. I have known people who answer: “I don’t know. How are you?” So the answer of how you are depends upon how I am? It’s not like we can’t make plans for the day until we know the weather forecast! It sounds more to me as if one is not sure of the container, the relationship or the conversation and so wants to check out how much room or time there is for a real answer.

2. A statement about “what” they’re doing, rather than how they are. “How are you?” “I’m finishing breakfast.” “How are you?” “I’m getting dressed.” Or even, “I’m a title, role or list of accomplishments. Or how about answering by name dropping! Eeuuu! Where’s the person in this? Again, maybe it was safer to put those answers out there than to simply answer the question on a personal level. “Dare I say how I feel…, or that I don’t feel well…, or that I don’t agree, or like something or someone…”
And then there are the people who ask that question inappropriately. The telemarketers who call at dinner time and maybe attempt to get on that first name basis and ask, “How are you?” That’s when I want to say that my little toe hurts, that I’m constipated, and worried about my third cousin in Africa, or that my dog just had an accident (maybe in not such nice language.) And even if one answers back with the automatic, “Fine thanks, how are you?” They often say, “Find thank you, and thanks for asking.” Really? Maybe some who answer those calls don’t get to the auto answer. I knew someone who paid so much for voice lessons. When her teacher asked how she was, she answered, “It’s not relevant.”

Someone at a college where I worked would answer: “Yup.” And then keep on walking. And then I knew someone who would always answer with “I’m perfect.” Ok, I get the spiritual meaning, but again, where’s the person?

One of my college professors had a system with coworker where people answered with a number. For example, if 10 were great and 1 was horrible and someone answered “8,” others knew that person was having a stressful time.

Sometimes we just aren’t in the mood to answer. Sometimes we don’t want to unload. I think of the Native American tradition of the Burden Basket, where they were encouraged to leave their burdens outside in the basket before bringing them into another’s dwelling. Reminds me of the importance of not creating unnecessary litter, or at least cleaning up one’s own trash, or doing what one can to not add to pollution.

Sometimes we don’t want to unleash, or speak hastily. Sometimes people ask inappropriate questions: “How are you? How come you’re not married?” “How did you get to be like that?” “Do you get money from the government, you know, being the way you are?”

What do those questions have to do with just a kind hello, or an open inquiry as to how I am?

One thing I want to encourage is that when asked how we are, we at the very least stop and answer this inwardly for ourselves. Then, if we choose to give a stock answer, or one with substance, it’s an answer based on conscious choice and not autopilot.

And for asking the question? I also suggest putting the scripts aside, putting aside the autopilot and not asking unless you really want a real answer, asking out of genuineness out of respect for personal boundaries. Sometimes a simple greeting goes a long way.