“How are you?”

Someone: How are you?

Me: Confused.

Someone: Oh. I am sorry to hear that.

Me: No, that’s OK. I am studying philosophy.

When I first went to Israel on a youth exchange program, I stayed with a family in a small village somewhere in the district of Modi’in. One morning I was sitting in the large yard in front of the house, enjoying fabulous, fresh mint tea and some cookies for breakfast. It was me and two ladies, both somehow part of or associated with my host family.

A car came up, stopped and a guy yelled something out of the car window. It was in Hebrew, so I didn’t understand it. One of the ladies replied, which I didn’t understand either. The other lady helpfully translated her reply to me: “She said ‘That’s none of your business.’ ” I was perplexed, but tried to look as if this was a perfectly normal statement to start a bright and beautiful morning with. My face must have given away that I had been wondering what the question had been, because she added with a smile: “The question was ‘How are you?’

how_are_you_todayThat was almost 30 years ago, but I still remember this moment each time somebody asks me “How are you?” Towards many people who pose this question, I think it’s a rather adequate reply.

I bet many of you are thinking: “Why don’t you just reply ‘fine’ or ‘good’ and that’s it?”

Because that’s exactly the problem I have with the question. If I reply honestly, I am often neither fine, nor good, but worried or overworked or stressed or sad.

Of course I could lie, but I have a strict moral compass. And when you are deeply troubled by something, it hurts to know that someone, especially a family member or a friend, sometimes even a partner, doesn’t really care and only wants to hear “fine, thanks”. Instead of lying and turning my soul inside out, I sometimes answer by telling them what I have been doing or what I am planning to do.

Someone: How are you?

Me: Oh, I just read Martin Eden for the third time. I don’t even remember having done that with any other book.

I do sometimes get puzzled looks.

I don’t know if you have ever tried it, but when you reply honestly, you often notice the questioner’s unease. Even when I dare to venture into detailed explanations of how I am, people sometimes ignore it completely.

Someone: How are you?

Me: Not so good. I have a toothache. And my girlfriend left me. Well, she only said she wanted a “pause”, but then she moved to India without telling me, which I guess is a pretty clear sign.

Someone: I am glad you are OK.

Me: ???

They probably regret having asked in the first place, because they would have to admit that their question was not inspired by genuine care, but was merely a thoughtless repetition of the ever same phrase.

Therefore, between lying and burdening someone with something they don’t want to hear, “It’s none of your business” or the more polite “I would prefer not to say” is really a good reply. Or when people ask online, you can just send them the link to this article.

Two winters ago, I was in Canada and had a terrible cold or something. I went to a drugstore and bought some medicine, the strongest I could find.

Drugstore guy (cheerily): How are you today?

Me (with a runny nose and coughing): I am sick. That’s why I am purchasing this medicine.

Drugstore guy (after I paid): Have a great day!

Me: Well, I have quite a cold, so it probably won’t be a super-exciting day.

He clearly didn’t like it that someone went off script. But posing a question without a genuine interest in the response is not polite. It’s shallow.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Canada, Israel, Language, Life. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to “How are you?”

  1. “From now on, I can also direct people to this blog instead of providing a full answer. That should save everybody some time….”
    And give you some readers as well ;)
    I always thought what to answer that question myself, as “I’m fine” is one of the world’s biggest lies.

  2. elenaanat says:

    I read your blog and I was sure that you are fine!

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  4. Anastassia says:

    This is really an American and West European thing; in Russia if one asks this question, this would usually be at the end of the conversation, when both people opened up enough and one of them begins to genuinely care – “but really, how are you?”. With this question we usually expect to dig to the core problem and to get a detailed answer. Imagine my chock moving to the West! But what I really appreciate there is the smile people put. Let it be fake, but it nevertheless activates a a release of endorphin and eventually adds to happiness))

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  6. I look at “How are you” and “How’s it going” as questions that do NOT want an answer. Kinda like, here in the States, “Have you heard what those idiots did in Congress THIS time?”. ;)
    Answer these at your own risk. Though they are less (albeit SLIGHTLY less) dangerous than the infamous “Does this dress make me look fat?” question that we married guys live in fear of…. :D

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  9. In Rajasthan ( India), villagers say “Ram, Ram”. It means something ” I greet the god ( Rama) who is in you”.
    I like this : strangers who know I’m a god !

  10. Pingback: Daily Prompt: Polite Company « Dibbler Dabbler

  11. The Bohemian says:

    It is a bit distressing that two girls from Modiin have left such an impression on you- but this is not surprising due to the enchanting nature of Israeli women combined with your young age at the time. You are lucky you did not meet Haifa ladies because then the impact might have been too harsh on you.
    More seriously, here in the Middle East, asking “How are you” is a polite gesture.
    You can either reply “thanks I am doing great” or “not too bad” or “ala kefak”. Other replies (such as the ones you described) may be considered condescending or will just present you as a childish “wise ass”.
    As the the Modeiin babe: in Israel her reaction probably meant: “thanks for noticing me and stopping by. I am being rude because I am here next to a cute German guy and I am trying to tease you- but I really care about you- otherwise I would not have reacted in such a bibmoiish manner”
    But you seem like a nice guy.
    Keep trying!

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  14. JoV says:

    Another one on Mondays is “How’s your weekend?” To which I always want to reply: “You don’t want to know.” but instead replied “It’s good, great.” just to fend off further probe into what I did the weekend past.

  15. Libs says:

    I ask “como estas?” when I really care about the person and really want to know how the person is doing. When I do not care one bit and just want to be cordial I say “que mas?”

    • I will reply “No es asunto tuyo.” in both cases.

    • If you say that to a Brazilian the person would be extremely offended!
      I also ask “How are you/ How are you today / what have you been up to or how is everything going” and it’s always a genuine interest in know how the other one is. I care about people and I care about having meaningful conversations and connections and those are only possible when we know from where the other person is standing in that moment. I believe the world needs more connections and people caring about one another and it’s the lack of it that generates lots of misunderstandings and conflict. Unfortunately those questions turned into imposed norms are empty and let most people being completely skeptical about it and completely ignoring it.

    • If someone is genuinely interested, then I appreciate it and answer truthfully. But it may take longer than just replying “Fine. Thanks. And you?” – I have just become so cynical about this “How are you?” because most people are shocked when you reply truthfully or with anything else than “fine” or “great”.

  16. Libs says:

    jajajaja es mejor decir “que le importa”

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  19. I detest that question! I’ve answered with “I don’t know how, I’m still working on why”

    I will always give an honest answer. I tell people don’t ask if you don’t want to know that your butt looks huge in those pants😂

    A simple “Hello” or “Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening” is the best greeting, IMO.🌻

    • I am relieved to read it’s not only me.
      I sometimes also reply “I don’t really know, it’s too complex to answer in one word,” and some people will almost try to order me to “just say you are fine.”

    • F.I.N.E. = F’d up, Irrational, Neurotic, Emotional. You could use that honestly sometimes 😉😂

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