“How are you?”

Thanks, all, for the comments on my "Poker face" entry the other day. I should have noted that this stuff isn't a Huge Big Deal that I'm really distressed about or anything. The tone was meant to be more musing than unhappy. Sounds like I gave the wrong impression to some of you; sorry about that.

There's a related issue that I've been meaning to write about for a while. Unfortunately, like a lot of things I've been wanting to write about, it will probably end up sounding like a criticism of some of you. As always, rest assured that I don't intend it that way; this is discussion/description, not bitter accusation.

(Btw, I wrote most of this a few days ago; just got around to finishing and posting it.)

Here's the issue:

Sometimes it takes me a while to work up to being able to talk (in person) about important stuff.

I've had quite a lot of conversations over the years in which there's something big and important I want to talk about, but the conversation doesn't provide an opening for me to talk about it in a way I'm comfortable with. Here are a couple of examples of the way such conversations tend to go:

Friend: Hi! How are you?

Me [not quite ready, at this early and casual moment in the conversation, to launch into Big Difficult Topics]: Oh, I'm okay. How are you?

Friend: [Launches into extended discussion of their life, which ends up filling up the rest of the available conversation time.]

Here's another common example, with very different intentions but a similar end result:

Friend: Hi! How are you?

Me [working up the emotional energy to get to the important stuff, but being slow about it]: Well . . . I'm . . .

Friend: [Decides that I would obviously rather not talk about it, and well-intentionedly changes topics by launching into extended discussion of their life.]

(There must be a real word that means "well-intentionedly," but my language centers are more or less on vacation this week.)

Then again, there's this pattern, which I find really frustrating (even though I've almost certainly been on the other side of it more than once):

Friend: Hi! How are you?

Me: Well, things are—

Friend [distracted]: Oh! Did you hear about Frederika? She and Otto are getting married! [Discusses this for a while.] Anyway, so how are you?

Me: Well, I'm not—

Friend: Hey, I saw a great new movie the other day. [Discusses this for a while.] Seen anything good lately?

Me: Not really.

Friend: That's too bad.

Me: Well, that's mostly because I—

Friend: Wait, let me tell you my latest news. [And so on.]

(Come to think of it, the first and third examples above are fairly analogous to what happened in that Once Upon a Time game last week.)

So I guess there are two main ways to make conversational space for me in an in-person conversation, should you be so inclined:

One is just to be patient. If I don't want to talk about something, I'll almost always explicitly say so; if I'm pausing, it probably means I'm trying to find the right words or figure out how to say something, not that I wish you hadn't asked.

The other is to provide me with more than one opening to talk about things, and to make them real openings. If my first answer to "How are you?" is a generic one, it may well be that there's more I want to get to after the opening cordialities. On the other hand, I suspect we've all had conversations like this:

Me: Hi! How are you?

Friend: Not bad. How are you?

Me: Pretty good. How are you? —Oh, wait, you just answered that. Sorry.

When I stumble into that, it's just an automatic thing—the second "How are you?" is an automated addendum to the "Pretty good," without any conscious thought involved. So sometimes if someone asks me "How are you?" more than once in a conversation, it leaves me mildly irritated, 'cause it suggests that they weren't really paying attention to whatever I said the first time they asked.

And to make things more complicated, sometimes (most of the time, really) I am in fact doing pretty good, so my first casual answer is the real one, and being asked again will leave me at a loss as to how to proceed, so I'll stumble around trying to figure out a way to say something different from what I said the first time.

Which is one reason I didn't post all this before my recent travels. I didn't want to make everyone waste even more time trying to read my mind. (More than I had already done by writing about good ways to approach me, I mean.) My mind is tricky to read; it's printed in a tiny little typeface, and there are a lot of footnotes and margin notes and cross-references and hyperlinks, and the sentences go on just about forever, and some of it is in computerese rather than English, and a lot of it makes very little sense indeed. So I try not to make people read it or to get mad at them for not doing so.

. . . I wrote the above over the past couple days but hadn't quite gotten around to posting it. Then today I had my counseling session and I told some of it to the counselor. And she pointed out what should have been obvious: I could change my behavior. When someone asks "How are you?" I could actually tell them, instead of saying "fine" or temporizing. I could immediately say "Oh, been better" or "Up and down" or even "Not so great." And certainly that would result in some people changing the subject or shifting away; but with other people, it would give them a hint that I do want to talk about things.

Also, if they do try to express sympathy, I could be aware that they're probably at a loss for what to say or how to say it. We humans ain't generally so good at talking about things like loss, grief, and bereavement. I know that when I'm faced with a friend who's going through such things, I often don't know what to say. I'm learning, though, that sometimes asking someone what they want can be a good first step. Sometimes not; I'm not very good at doing that yet. But I think it's a skill worth learning.

And, relatedly, letting people know what I want (by just asking them for it) is also a skill worth learning. I've never been any good at asking for what I want. Once, visiting a friend a few years ago, I asked for a glass of orange juice, and they said in mock astonishment "Jed, you just asked for something! What's wrong?"

In other words, one way to not make people read my mind is to actually tell them what I'm thinking. A novel idea. I'm still getting used to it.

One more thing: this is all complicated, of course, by the fact that sometimes the other person has important stuff of their own to tell me, in which case I really am fine with focusing on them. The world doesn't, it turns out, revolve completely around me. (Yeah, I know, I was shocked too.) I've been slowly putting together an entry in my head to be titled "It's all about me!", but actually writing that up is still going to take me some time. So I'll stop here for now.

5 Responses to ““How are you?””

  1. Kendra Eshleman

    Yeah, I know whatcha mean. I’m still chagrined that it took me so long on Friday at AW to figure out that there was something bothering you that you wanted to talk about. Thank goodness for second (and third) chances.

  2. Twig

    Ah, yes, the truth is an amazing thing. I often find some variant of the answer, “I’ve had worse days and I’ve had better days” useful. While I am much more willing to tell people the truth than I was a few years ago, I still find myself reluctant to tell people negative stuff if they are already obviously stressed. Which means sometimes, if all my friends are having stress fests, that I end up with no one to talk to about whatever it is I wanted to talk about.

  3. Anonymous

    My doctor offered me a stress fest, but my heart wasn’t in it.

  4. Thida

    I usually reply “Hanging in there.” It works for me, because it’s the truth. But some people remain clueless anyway. Just yesterday the mother of a preschool friend of Special K said “I had no idea your son was ill.”

  5. Benjamin Rosenbaum

    I often ask people “how are you” twice, with a different intonation the second time, like:

    Me: Hey there, how are you?
    Them: Good, how are you?
    Me: Good. Been here long?
    Them: No, we just got in. You?
    Me: Yeah, me too. Oh, a drink. (pours). So — how ARE you?

    The second one is the non-phatic question.

    I think this is common in the USA, and the reason I think that is that it would totally flummox people in Switzerland. The second question would always elicit a furrowed brow and a look of great consternation, and sometimes a “well, I just told you…”

    But they, of course, also really answer the question the first time. And they also don’t (with a very few noticeable exceptions) launch into long rants on anything; the conversation is handed around, slowly, to all present, like a salad.

    I admired this practice, and it drove me absolutely nuts, as you might imagine….

    So. How ARE you? 🙂


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