It’s a reflexive question most of us ask when we start a conversation, and it’s one of the easiest and most challenging questions to answer: how are you? Every time it comes up, I find myself hesitating just a little. This is especially true in the past year, when it feels like an extremely loaded question.
Our question this episode: how far do you go when you answer, “how are you?”
Welcome to episode 78 of How Can I Say This…, where we look to build connection and community through courageous conversations. I’m your host, Beth Buelow. Thanks for joining me!
This topic of how we respond to “how are you?” has been on my mind for a while, even pre-dating the pandemic. I admit to not knowing if asking this routine question is common outside of the United States. I’d be curious to know if other cultures have this same habit of opening conversation with both friends and strangers with, “how are you?” If you’re a listener in one of the 80 other countries outside the United States who subscribe to this show and you’re willing to share, please be in touch and let me know! I’m sincerely curious. But I wanted to acknowledge from the start that I might be speaking mostly to my American audience.
Let me start with a quick story.
Back in early January, my husband fell on some ice right in front of our house. He managed to tear – or maybe it was break? I’ve not been clear on that – a ligament in his right knee. Thank goodness I was home, and we have health insurance. We were able to get him to an emergency room and get immediate help. Surgery followed a few weeks later. While he’s fortunate to have gotten the care he needed and is on the road to recovery, it’s not been easy. There have been okay days and bad days, but frustration and boredom and pain were the norm during those early weeks.
So when a friend from a weekly gathering texted him a few days after his fall with the inevitable question, “how are you?”, he wasn’t sure how to answer her. He asked me, “what should I say? Do I tell the truth?”
This is the challenge.
There’s the relationship to consider – they’ve known each other for about a year through these weekly gatherings, which involves conversation around sometimes personal topics. He considers her a friend, but they’ve not socialized outside of the group.
There’s the way the question came to him: it was via text, which seems best for short responses, such as “I’m doing well!”, rather than for giving details on aches and pains.
There’s the bigger context of being in a pandemic, when everyone is suffering in ways large and small. Sometimes we hesitate to say how we’re REALLY doing because we don’t want to burden someone else with our troubles. We don’t want to be a downer. We don’t want to sound like we’re complaining or indulging in self-pity. Or we dismiss our problems, thinking they are trivial compared to others.
Even considering all of these factors, I said, “You should tell her how you’re really doing. You are friends, and she’s sincerely asking you. She wants to know the truth, not a sanitized version of events. You don’t have to give her gory details, but be honest. It’s the respectful thing to do.”
So he did. He gave her a high-level response that shared how frustrated he was without going into too much detail. She wrote back a supportive reply, thanking him for sharing and offering her perspective on times when she’d been in a similar situation. They had an exchange that I know was meaningful for my husband and has deepened their friendship and trust. A few weeks later, when his surgery was scheduled for a day that included a speaking engagement I couldn’t move, we asked if she’d be willing to pick him up and bring him back home – she didn’t hesitate to say yes. We were so grateful, and I knew that her support came from her heart, not a sense of obligation.
That support wasn’t all because my husband chose to be honest with her when she asked, “how are you?”, but I do believe that it played a role.
How far do you go?
As I mentioned, when I’m on the receiving end of the “how are you” question, I sometimes hesitate. It’s a split second of thinking, wondering how real I can be. This is true even when I know the person is asking not out of social niceties, but because they really want to know.
I had two calls last week with colleagues I don’t know super well, but when they each asked me, How are you, I could tell by the inflection in their voices that they wanted me to answer with more than “I’m fine, how are you?” So I did. I tried to keep my response brief, but I offered some personal information that honored their sincere desire to know. And when I asked it back to them, I found myself listening more intently and learning something new about their lives.
Part of deciding how to respond is based on the nature of the relationship. If the barista asks how you’re doing, it’s appropriate to say, “I’m doing okay, how about you?” Sometimes depending on my mood and the energy I’m getting from the other person, I’ll share a little more, such as, “I’m having a good day,” or “I’m tired, so I’m treating myself.” It’s a small moment of risk-free human connection between strangers, and I find whenever I do it, I feel a little lighter, even a little happier.
If it’s a professional colleague, you would do well to consider the boundaries that you want to have between work and your personal life, or how what you share might influence your credibility or reputation. It’s not that being honest is a bad thing; in fact, I tend to err on being fairly transparent in the spirit of connection and trust-building. If we give someone else a glimpse of our inner life, that gives them permission to do the same, and that strengthens our connection. I choose to share a bit more with people I want to get to know better, and I hold back and give a more generic answer if I know I want to keep a firmer boundary.
With friends and family, I’m practicing being more truthful. You would think that it’d be easy to share real feelings with people you know and love. But even then, it can feel vulnerable. Sometimes, to share means that we might face questions or feel like we have to tell more of the story than we’re ready to. I’ve definitely experienced that! I know that if I say, “I’ve had a rough day,” the other person probably will want to know more. If I know I need to acknowledge that it’s been a hard day but don’t want to talk about it, I’ll say that: “it’s been a rough day, and I’m not really up for talking about it right now, just wanted to let you know in case I seem a little grumpy.”
Whether or not I share might depend on whether we’re in person or on the phone, texting or emailing, what I know about what’s going on in their life, or just how much energy I have. The main thing is to remember that if someone close to you asks how you’re doing, use it as an opportunity to deepen the relationship with an honest, real response. You don’t have to share the entire story of what led you to being super sad or super happy. But it feels really good to speak your truth and show that you trust the other person to listen and care.
Another way to connect
Before your call to action, I want to share a quick story – I can’t remember if I’ve already shared it here, but even if I have, it’s worth sharing again. Back in mid-April 2020, we were a month into a shelter-in-place order here in Michigan. It was still cold and gray – spring is slow to arrive in the Midwest – and we were overwhelmed by coronavirus news. On one particular day, I received cancellation notices from three different in-person events that I was registered to attend, all of which I was looking forward to. Something in me just broke in two, and I felt deep sadness about all of the change and unknowns and what seemed like relentless bad news. I texted two of my neighbors: “I need to break something. Do either of you have an old, chipped dish or something you don’t mind donating to the cause?” Within 30 minutes, one responded that she had a few cracked dishes she’d just put in the trash that she’d be happy to dig out for me and leave on her front porch. She then wrote, “also happy to sit and chat if you need it.” Just a little bit later, she, the other neighbor I’d texted, and I were standing – socially distanced – in her front yard. We talked for maybe 10 minutes. I think I might have gotten teary. But it was exactly what I needed. I wrote to them afterwards, “my heart feels a little lighter now.” I didn’t know either of them well enough to spill everything that was upsetting me, but I trusted them with just enough that I felt profound relief after the conversation.
In fact, I still have the dishes my friend gave me… I didn’t smash them, because the 10-minute connection, that sense of seeing and being seen by someone who cared to listen, was enough. It was a great lesson early in the pandemic that asking for support is absolutely necessary. And that goes hand-in-hand with being honest when people want to know how we’re doing.
Here’s your call to action:
When you’re asked, “How are you?”, be thoughtful about your response. Don’t default to, “I’m good, how are you?” Consider the nature of the relationship, and if it’s a friend or family member, offer an honest response in the spirit of building trust and respecting the other person. Like I did with the two colleagues I mentioned earlier, if you sense their tone is asking for more than a surface answer, share a more personal response that still respects boundaries. You don’t have to offer a detailed explanation about why you feel what you feel, but don’t be cryptic – for instance, if you’re sick or feeling down and don’t want to say much more than that, you can say, “I’m a bit under the weather,” or “I’m having an off day,” followed by something that gives the other person the sense you’re okay, such as
“but I’m able to rest today, so that’s good.” If the other person says, “oh no, what’s wrong?” and you don’t want to say more, it’s okay to say, “just a bug, it’ll work its way out of my system.” If they press you, say, “I appreciate your concern, but I doubt you want to hear the gory details. I’d rather hear about how you’re doing!”
When it comes to people close to you, you don’t have to dress it up and say you’re happy when you’re not. If you’re really needing to talk about how you’re doing, check in with them: “I’m not doing so good, would you have a few minutes for me to tell you what’s going on?” There’s a chance they might say it’s not a good time, and can you talk longer later, but there’s an even bigger chance they’ll say yes, tell me what’s on your mind. Either way, someone who cares about you will be glad you were truthful and that you trusted them.
As I said: simple question, complex considerations. Even as I thought about this, my mind went off into different “well, what if…?” directions. The bottom line is to notice if there’s an opportunity to go beyond a reflexive, “I’m fine,” and make a more human connection with the other person. It might seem risky, but right now, we need as much human connection as we can get. So let’s be more intentional about that invitation to share a piece of ourselves and let it serve as a gateway to deeper empathy, compassion and caring for one another.
If you listened to episode 77, you know that I love to get listener questions about your communication challenges. If you have a “how can I say this?” question to submit for a future episode, you’ll find the online submission form at howcanisaythis.com. You can also send me your question directly to beth @ howcanisaythis.com. No matter how you submit a question, you have the choice to be completely anonymous if you like.
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This is Beth Buelow, and you’ve been listening to How Can I Say This. Our podcast producer is Paul Messing, and our theme music is by Brett Anderson.
Thanks for joining me today, and I invite you to take what you’ve learned here and use it to speak up, speak out, and speak courageously.