Hello, How Are You?

A short longish foray into embedded social niceties and the consequences thereof

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now – it’s the type of pondering that pops up when I say hi to someone as I enter the dining room and then sit down to eat. Also because Facebook keeps putting up Upworthy posts about depression (notably, it seems to always be heteronormative white males that are doing the speaking out, which is a shame) and the recent Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki T-shirt campaign, and Jared’s absence from JIBCON, and just the general gist of things I’ve seen on the internet in the last couple of months (read: how not being fine sometimes is all right, but that by reaching out and getting help of some variety, amelioration is possible).

How many people genuinely want to know how you’re feeling when they ask you? It’s such a social nicety, to be breezed over with an “I’m good” or a half-hearted “fine”, and then all is dandy and the talking can begin. Or it’s a conversation in and of itself when, for example,  you’re waiting in line for lunch and you know the person behind you – the exchange of “hi”s and how are you today and then the inevitable fine – and then you turn back and keep waiting in line.

It doesn’t mean anything any more, that statement. We’re expected to say fine, because we’ve left the person feeling as though they’ve done their duty by asking. We’re expected to say fine, because the question is just a precursor. We’re expected to say fine, because how can we be otherwise? This response is so automatic and ingrained as a social convention that even a more positive one like “I’m great!” or “I’m having an awesome day so far” is met with suspicion.

Here’s where the rest of stuff, like stigma and social pressure and repression and awkwardness and self-exposure and doubt come in.

First of all, there’s the issue of not wanting to say that you’re not fine, which is interrelated with the issue of not wanting to hear that someone isn’t fine. Let’s imagine the typical scenario of meeting someone on the street. Would anyone actually go ahead and admit that they’re not fine? Sure, we’ve got the typical “Bit tired, but I’m good” or “Have a headache, but it’s all right” answers. Notice, however, that they inevitably end in platitudes, making sure that the issue can be put to rest simply with an offering such as “I’m sorry to hear that”. This is because in asking the question of how someone is feeling, we are now contractually obliged to listen to the response, even though in most cases, the query is not made in any serious sense. Thus, the person answering doesn’t want to actually burden anything onto the listener, since they are intimately aware they’re not really being asked how they are, but are rather enacting a social ritual that demands an expected and straightforward response.

Mostly, people don’t want to break conventions. Doing so can result in social awkwardness and unexpected conversation paths that are unlooked-for, especially between relative strangers (although perhaps this is even worse when you’re actively close with someone, because what if they decide this is the last straw and abandon you to self-misery?). By saying you’re not fine, you’re breaking a pattern that has been working (insofar as society believes) and causing an abrupt halt to the train of conversation. You risk self-exposure and vulnerability, as well as the necessity of having to bumble your way through to a conclusion. If you aren’t feeling fine, what can somebody actually do? Can they say anything that will solve things, or at least improve matters in any way? Mostly, the answer to this is no. Certainly not if you happen to bump into someone walking across the campus while you’re having a generally miserable day. So there is no point in answering anything but fine.

The actual question can act as a trick staircase as well. Notwithstanding the social pressure of giving the correct reply, the question may beget self-reflection and introspection that yields to doubts about one’s mental well-being. After all, are you genuinely fine for once, or are you just saying that? Being blindsided is never fun, and it can make interactions awkward if you have to pause and assess yourself after being asked such a seemingly cursory question. It may also lead to conclusions perhaps best made elsewhere.

Finally, the stigmas surrounding mental illness and failure can affect your response. You may not feel comfortable enough with a person, and thus shy away from the truth. You may feel as though you have no right to complain, because so many others have it so much worse. You may lie in order to protect loved ones, or because you think that the situation isn’t appropriate sharing material, or you don’t want them to feel helpless. Despite all the content out there, encouraging people that it’s okay to say you’re not all right, it is a pretty huge step to actually admitting it.

Personally, I think that there’s a difference between saying that you’re not feeling well, in any scenario, and responding to the question of “how are you”. The latter encourages a certain response, and may incite frustration if used in a more authentic situation wherein the questioner really, actually, properly wants to know how you are, because you may feel societal constraints and internal pressures barring you from giving a truthful answer. If looked at in a certain light, the question takes away your right of self-determination, since you have to provide an answer, whether you want to or not. It can therefore lead to avoidance of the issue or anger at the asker, because the ‘right’ question hasn’t been asked. Conversely, if given an open floor to talk about how you’re feeling as you wish and bring up the topic in they way you feel comfortable, I believe that you’re much more likely to have a fulfilling conversation that actually addresses the issue and potential solutions.

Especially if you don’t have to unnecessarily scrutinise your wellbeing every time someone says hi.


I’d absolutely love to hear your opinions about the way we interact, or if you take issue with any of my completely non-empirical-evidence backed thoughts here!

-Let’s Call Me Lily