How are you?

One of the most difficult aspects of living in the UK is the bizarre mix of box-ticking politeness with genuine emotional reserve.

In other words, while almost everyone will ask, ‘how are you?’, the only acceptable answer is ‘fine thank you, how are you?’

Perhaps we should just invert the meaning of ‘fine’ ? (Image by DestinyBlue – a supremely talented artist specialising in cartoons and comics. The original can be found here)

On a black dog day, this presents a problem. Either you break social convention and cause widespread panic:

‘Oh, the usual mix of abject misery and thoughts of self-harm, how about you?

Or, you lie.

In the short term, lying seems like the obvious option. For one thing, it creates less paperwork. I once made the mistake of being brutally honest with a colleague about my desires to end my life. Within a few hours I was being invited (that’s the British for ‘ordered’) to have a chat with both human resources and occupational health. Oddly enough, this didn’t help me to feel any better. I just felt like a troublemaker who needed processing to avoid any awkward legal ramifications.

Unfortunately, lying isn’t necessarily the easier option. For one thing, it’s very tiring. Among other things, the lie has to be convincing, else you risk being bombarded with increasingly probing questions. More questions means more chances for the mask to fall off until – BOOM – you’re in social faux pas territory.

Someone recently asked how I was, following up quite reasonably when my reply proved unconvincing. I responded like any cool and emotionally well-adjusted person, and burst into tears. They looked terrified. I’m not sure why. I was producing gentle whimpering sounds whilst leaking salt water from my tear glands. I was not wielding an axe. And they call me the crazy one! Anyway, the point is, for the lie to work, you really have to nail that first line. Since most people aren’t fooled by words alone, this means a smile or, at least, a jolly tone is essential.

‘I’m fine thank you, how are you?’

Sound simple enough? Well it isn’t. When you’re in the clutches of depression, it requires an enormous amount of energy. Many a day I’ve gone to work, said nothing except a couple of ‘fine thank yous’ , and come home utterly exhausted. Which has a knock-on effect on my ability to do it all over again the next day.

But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.

It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.

So what are we to do if neither lying nor the truth are realistic options? Well, one of my favourite options is the deflection. To think like a politician and answer an entirely different question.

‘Oooo, I’ve been experimenting with blogging. Although it is meant to be anonymous, so I’m afraid I can’t send you the link. Or even tell you what it’s about. You?’

I’ve also come up with an answer that I can say with a genuine sense of belief (and positivity), but which isn’t a lie,

‘I’m still here, you?’

When you’re struggling with depression, the definition of a ‘good day’ sometimes has to be set a bit more generously (Image by Allie Brosh, author of Hyperbole and a Half – one of the world’s most talented mental health bloggers. The original appeared in a post called, I’m Definitely Not Dead)

Depending on the time and the person, however, I think there is a better approach; sugar-coated honesty. To answer in a way that reflects the troubles you’re going through, that openly admits your poor mental health, but perhaps leaves out some of the grim details:

‘I’ve been struggling with poor mental health, which can make it hard to achieve much, but I’m hanging in there and I’ve just been put on some new medication, so I’m hoping that’ll help’

Not everyone will respond appropriately. Some might even say something laughably unhelpful. But the vulnerable honesty can be surprisingly empowering. And, if you’re lucky, you might even get a bit of empathy and kindness.

So, ladies, gentlemen and other black dog owners: ‘How are you today!?’

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172 thoughts on “How are you?”

  1. amazing post,
    i am so suprised about it tho.. i lived in the uk for 1,5 years, and moved there because i couldn’t stand the austrian ‘fake politeness’ anymore .. i honestly loved being asked how are you everyday, because english people at least seemed to care a little.. but i guess that was just me because everytime i asked, i honestly meant it.. it’s never funny to feel as if no one understands, or cares about you.. but from my expierence, the people you surrround yourself with, can make a hell of a diference to how you feel about yourself x

  2. Reblogged this on demolitioneyes's Blog and commented:
    I’ve found this post very explanatory and even helpful for people who are dealing with such an unexplored issue (yes, still today) like depression. I also try to be honest but not so much with my answers, too. So here.

  3. -How are you?
    -I got up from bed this morning, and you?
    I do this a lot. This post can be so helpful for people dealing with this state of mind. Hope you’re having a “still here” day at least today.

  4. I often go with the ‘still here’ approach, with variations like: Oh, still breathing. Or: Well, I just keep waking up every morning. I’m not sure, but I think I often don’t sound all that pleased about it. Then, if people probe further, I invariably say: Just got to keep chipping away.
    Every now and again, I catch myself meaning it.

  5. I have shared… FINE … did you knot this also stands for a phrase, the first word of which I won’t write here… You can guess it perhaps… F , Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional….

  6. The quote below is from Eric Berne, a psychologist of human relationships. I think it offers a good analysis of what most people are doing when they greet each other.

    A “stroke” is basically when one person recognises/interacts with another person. Most strokes are verbal rather than physical but they get their name from the fact that they are seen as substituting for the physical strokes we got from our parents when we were young.

    Berne argues that getting stokes is just as fundamental to staying healthy as is eating and that if we do not receive strokes then “our spines shrivel up and die”. He intends this seriously as he refers to people who actually die early because they do not receive enough strokes.

    “Of more significance as an introduction to game analysis are informal rituals, and among the most instructive are the American greeting rituals.

    1A; “Hi!” (Hello, good morning.)
    1B: “Hi!” (Hello, good morning.)
    2A: “Warm enough for ya?” (How are you?)
    2B: “Sure is. Looks like rain, though.” (Fine. How are you?)
    3A: “Well, take cara yourself.” (Okay.)
    3B: “I’ll be seeing you.”
    4A: “So long.”
    4B: “So long.”

    It is apparent that this exchange is not intended to convey information. Indeed, if there is any information, it is wisely withheld. It might take Mr. A fifteen minutes to say how he is, and Mr. B, who is only the most casual acquaintance, has no intention of devoting that much time to listening to him. This series of transactions is quite adequately characterized by calling it an “eight-stroke ritual.” If A and B were in a hurry, they might both be contented with a two-stroke exchange, Hi-Hi. If they were old-fashioned Oriental potentates, they might go through a two-hundred stroke ritual before settling down to business. Meanwhile, in the jargon of transactional analysis, A and B have improved each other’s health slightly; for the moment, at least, “their spinal cords won’t shrivel up,” and each is accordingly grateful.

    This ritual is based on careful intuitive computations by both parties. At this stage of their acquaintance they figure that they owe each other exactly four strokes at each meeting, and not oftener than once a day. If they run into each other again shortly, say within the next half hour, and have no new business to transact, they will pass by without any sign, or with only the slightest nod of recognition, or at most with a very perfunctory Hi-Hi. These computations hold not only for short intervals but over periods of several months. Let us now consider Mr. C and Mr. D, who pass each other about once a day, trade one stroke each—Hi-Hi —and go their ways. Mr. C goes on a month’s vacation. The day after he returns, he encounters Mr. D as usual. If on this occasion Mr. D merely says “Hi!” and no more, Mr. C will be offended, “his spinal cord will shrivel slightly.” By his calculations, Mr. D and he owe each other about thirty strokes. These can be compressed into a few transactions, if those transactions are emphatic enough. Mr. D’s side properly runs something like this (where each unit of “intensity” or “interest” is equivalent to a stroke):

    1D: “Hi!” (1 unit.)
    2D: “Haven’t seen you around lately.” (2 units.)
    3D: “Oh, have you! Where did you go?” (5 units.)
    4D: “Say, that’s interesting. How was it?” (7 units.)
    5D: “Well, you’re sure looking fine.” (4 units.) “Did your family go along?” (4 units.)
    6D: “Well, glad to see you back.” (4 units.)
    7D: “So long.” (1 unit.)

    This gives Mr. D a total of 28 units. Both he and Mr. C know that he will make up the missing units the following day, so the account is now, for all practical purposes, squared. Two days later they will be back at their two-stroke exchange, Hi-Hi. But now they “know each other better,” i.e., each knows the other is reliable, and this may be useful if they should meet “socially.”

    The inverse case is also worth considering. Mr. E and Mr. F have set up a two-stroke ritual, Hi-Hi. One day instead of passing on, Mr. E stops and asks: “How are you?” The conversation proceeds as follows:

    1E: “Hi!”
    1F: “Hi!’
    2E: “How are you?”
    2F (Puzzled’): “Fine. How are you?”
    3E: “Everything’s great. Warm enough for you?”
    3F: “Yeah.” (Cautiously.) “Looks like rain, though.”
    4E: “Nice to see you again.”
    4F: “Same here. Sorry, I’ve got to get to the library before it closes. So long.”
    5E: “So long.”

    As Mr. F hurries away, he thinks to himself: “What’s come over him all of a sudden? Is he selling insurance or something?” In transactional terms this reads: “All he owes me is one stroke, why is he giving me five?” An even simpler demonstration of the truly transactional business-like nature of these simple rituals is the occasion when Mr. G says “Hi!” and Mr. H passes on without replying. Mr. G’s reaction is “What’s the matter with him?” meaning: “I gave him a stroke and he didn’t give me one in return.” If Mr. H keeps this up and extends it to other acquaintances, he is going to cause some talk in his community.”

    Personally, I’d prefer to live in a culture where greeting rituals were based more on wishing well to others rather than asking questions that aren’t really intended as questions.

    E.g. the Arabic greeting ritual is:

    A: “Assalamu alaikum” (Peace be upon you)
    B: “alaikum assalam” (Upon you be peace)

    And the Jewish greeting, “Shalom” is also a way of wishing other people peace.

    But in our culture it would seem odd if we greeted people with “Peace to you” and so we have to make do with a ritual where we ask a question but we don’t literally mean what we say, but I agree that this can be exhausting on a bad day, especially if you have a tender conscience.

    I wonder if practically the way forward is to have one or two people who you intentionally contact to tell them who you are, but remember with everyone else that “How are you” is not actually intended as a question and so it is not lying to answer, “Well thanks, how are you?” because the question simply means, “I greet you” and your reply simply means, “I great you in return.”

Please feel free to add your thoughts! :)

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