In Canada, we ask, “how are you?” several times a day and almost never mean what the words seem to suggest.
Sometimes, “how are you?” means “hi” to us and other times it means, “can I move further into the conversation?” and sometimes it just means, “let’s fill some space here with pleasantries and then get down to business.”
Your job, at all times when asked how you are in these situations is simply to reply, “I’m fine/well. How about you?”
That’s the advice.
Recognize that “how are you?” is not a question about your physical or emotional condition or even your opinion. Avoid the following types of answers to that most overused of small-talk inquires: how are you:
- Well, I’ve got a rash on my back and it’s terribly itchy/a headache/a cramp/any physical malady.
As mentioned, ”How are you?” isn’t about your physical condition. So don’t mention migraines or menstrual cramps or mumps or any illness, unless the asker is a close friend or family member. In fact, I’ve been at my doctor’s office and the doctor says, “How are you?” when entering. I reply, “Fine and you?” The doc says, “Fine.” Clearly, I’m not fine because I am in a doctor’s office seeking treatment for an ailment. Yet, the lie persists because of the social situation. Following the how-are-you small talk, the doctors will ask, “How can I help you today?” That’s when we get down to the business of the rash or the headache or whatever.
- I’m so-so.
Really? So-so. That’s equal to not good. That’s as bad as saying you’re not fine. If you say this to someone, he or she will feel socially obligated to ask you what’s wrong. In North American culture, indicating you’re not fine/well says to me that you would like to have a conversation about the problem, whatever it is. Yet, it’s likely that you really don’t want to tell me about it, particularly if the problem is related to a divorce or death or something personal or tragic. Furthermore, it’s likely I am not a close enough friend to know these things about you. But I’ve now been trapped by social convention into asking you about your personal problems and listening for a reasonable amount of time. Please just lie to me and tell me you’re fine. If we are close friends, that’s different. Please tell me about problems, but otherwise, just say, “fine.”
- I’m not very good.
Remember what I said up there in #2? Just tell me you’re fine unless you really want to get into the details about whatever bad experience is happening.
- Saying, “I’m fine,” but then not asking about the other person in the conversation.
If you want to kill a conversation, and sometimes that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do, just answer about yourself and don’t ask about the other person. Nothing communicates “I don’t care about you” quite as much as this. As mentioned, there are perfectly reasonable times to use this strategy: with an overly-pushy sales person, with an ex, with someone you generally dislike. Just make sure you are using the “don’t-ask” strategy in the right situation.
- Anything negative, unless it’s about the weather. You mostly need a positive answer to the how-are-you question; however, there are times when it is safe to be negative. These times are when the Lower Mainland is trapped in an episode of extreme weather. Heat wave in progress? You can say, “I’m getting tired of all the heat.” With that, your conversation partner will probably commiserate with you. Two people can agree that it’s too hot/too rainy/too dry/too cold and then they can move on to the next order of business in your conversation. The same bonding occurs.
“How are you” is mostly not about your physical or emotional condition, although if you meet a close friend you haven’t see for a long time who says, “how are you?” it may be. Most of the time, however, in the social world we move through each day, the best response is usually, “Fine. You?”
About the Author: Gwen Pawlikowski is a freelance writer and entrepreneur who has also worked as an ISSofBC employment counsellor with newcomers. She lives in New Westminster and loves the diversity of the Lower Mainland. Please click here for information on ISSofBC’s career services.