How many times have you heard this today? From a bus driver, from a teacher, from a cashier? A bus driver or teacher typically get ignored because there are so many people that we assume someone else will answer or that they don’t really expect a response. And to a cashier? We perhaps respond with one or two words. Maybe “good” or a “fine.”
What is good? What is fine? Those aren’t feelings, so what are we really asking when we utter this common greeting? Are we even asking anything if we are so quick to accept no response or a monosyllabic response?
This makes the question very inauthentic. When we ask “how are you?” we’re typically not really inquiring how someone’s life or even how their day is going. In American culture, the phrase is valued simply as a polite formality. Small talk is a huge part of our everyday interactions and we are expected to play along. If someone, a stranger or casual acquaintance, were to respond, “do you really want to know?” or “do you even care?” Most would be appalled and shocked by what is generally viewed as rudeness. How uncalled for! “I was just being nice.”
I would like to counter this social taboo, however. Is this really uncalled for? Are you really just being nice? Yes, it is a little strange and maybe petty to respond to the question in this way, especially depending on the tone, but it is a valid question. If someone were to respond with a detailed description of how they felt and what’s been on their mind, would you listen? Would you think they were weird?
Is it not truly kindhearted when they are just empty words and you probably won’t even pay attention to the reply? That is not a genuine human interaction.
Part of this common communication or lack there of, I think, is also related to the American value of happiness. Smiling is expected and often just as fake. They often accompany these worthless goods or fines. We smile at strangers because it is considered well-mannered here, but in other cultures this is not the case.
Some other countries view Americans similar to puppy dogs. Smiling idiots. Don’t get me wrong, I think a smile can make someone’s day. A hello from a stranger, a door held, whatever small act does have the potential to lift someone’s attitude but our perception of happiness is unrealistic and reduces its worth.
You do not have to be happy all the time or always wear a smile on your face. I also don’t think you have to always respond good or fine when you hear how are you? You don’t need to bare your heart to a stranger, but it’s OK to not be OK.
It is great to actually give a genuine answer or at least something with more life than “fine!” Let’s just not allow this social ritual to spoil what could be beautiful human conversation and prevent us from connecting to those around us.