Health

For Once, ‘How Are You?’ Isn’t Actually Meaningless

In the future I imagine a lot of us will remember weird, small moments about the coronavirus pandemic: days we didn’t realize were turning points, tiny bright patches in the calm before the storm, random memories that don’t feel significant but somehow were. For me, I have a feeling I’m going to remember an interview I did for one of my first stories about the coronavirus. I got on the phone with an expert and, without thinking, greeted her, “Hey, how are you?” After a tiny pause we both, inexplicably, hysterically, dissolved into laughter.

It was back in early March, during that limbo when everything felt uncertain and weird. Some people were still Googling “How worried should I be about coronavirus?” while others had already begun stocking up on shelf-stable foods and canceling social engagements. Many of us were still cautiously going about our lives until we were told otherwise. Everything was simultaneously normal and very not, and in that moment, “How are you?”—and our unexpected reaction to the emotions that followed—underscored what a precarious balance it all was. Even though I’d felt life inching toward a turning point, it was in our laughter that I really felt it: Oh, things aren’t going to be the same for much longer.

Since then, the simple question “How are you?” has become more ludicrous by the day. Let’s face it, none of us is okay. In fact, many of us are very bad, thanks for asking. But weirdly it feels like we finally have the freedom to actually say that.

“How are you?” has always been a largely meaningless question. It’s small talk, interchangeable with any other greeting or pleasantry we share without thinking. Some people have always been grated by it, hating the unspoken social rules that dictate we say we’re good or, in a pinch, fine, even when we’re barely functioning. Because who’s really asking for an honest report of someone’s inner emotional landscape when they use the question to open a conversation?

Recently, though, the pandemic has shoved the question out of innocuous small talk into a place of self-awareness and care. More often than I can count, people have asked me, “How are you?” without thinking, only to pause, laugh or groan, and say something like, “Well, all things considered” or “I’m guessing bad?” or “I hope you’re doing as okay as you can be.” No matter why I’m talking to someone in the first place—whether it’s to interview them for a story or to get customer service about a missing package—the incongruous question always derails us, leaving us space to genuinely check in with each other, human to human.

There’s this common adage, along the lines of, “Be kind, you never know what someone is going through,” and frankly the stark out-of-placeness of “How are you?” reminds people of that sentiment every time they slip and ask what used to be such a banal question. Somehow, it’s accidentally making us all a little more thoughtful, one conversation at a time.

And on the selfish side of things, I’m so relieved that it’s now socially acceptable to answer the question honestly. Who among us is ever “fine” when they say they’re fine? It’s a small gift to our mental health to be relieved of the burden of pretending to be okay right now. This doesn’t mean we should feel obligated to unload all of our baggage—or feel entitled to honest answers from other people who may not want to share the many personal horrors they’re facing during the pandemic. But there’s something small in knowing that, in the very least, you can say, “I’m bad,” when someone asks you how you’re doing. No explanation required. Of course you’re bad. Who isn’t?

I’ve seen some people advocate for retiring “How are you?” now that the pandemic has shone a light on what a useless, obligatory pleasantry it’s always been. And sure, I get it. But personally, I don’t need the work of training myself to cut a reflexive phrase from my vocabulary when we’re already doing away with the unspoken pressure to perform okay-ness. Instead, I’d rather embrace the absurdity because it comes with solidarity.

It’s a small thing, sure. But bright sides feel few and far between these days. I’ll take a little joy where I can get it. And right now, I’m finding it in how a suddenly dated pleasantry can bond us together. How are we? How are we? How do you think we are? We’re fucking terrible. But at least we don’t have to pretend otherwise.

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