The Unspoken Rules of “How Are You?”

There is one seemingly straightforward question that we all ask of each other on a regular basis that no one really waits for the answer to. Everyone knows the unwritten rule of responding to this question, with the small exception of an honest and talkative few.

The question is, “How are you?”

Nearly everyone knows that in this modern age, the correct response to this simple enquiry is affirmative, cheery – and, most importantly – brief.

Any dissenters to this unspoken rule who are found to reply with unsolicited information concerning their bothersome ingrowing toenail, the death of Jim (“the family tortoise, he’s practically an heirloom you know!”) or their terrible day that will have them running for the bottle opener as soon as they reach home, is really not to be tolerated by busy people such as us.

These over-responders, who fail to honour the unspoken code of “How are you?” fill the vast majority of us with unfettered dread as they begin their sentence with a “Well…!”

Honest responses to this question (particularly long ones involving any form of ill-fortune) will provoke a series of reactions. First, a fixed grimace that Wallace and Gromit would be proud of gradually emerges as the regretful greeter instantly sees the error of their polite enquiry.

A hasty yet imperceptible retreat backwards towards the nearest open door will be made as we make our excuses to leave, along with a mental note never to ask such an ill-considered question ever again.

“Why the bloody hell did I ask that when all I really wanted to do was get to the frozen pizza aisle and leave the supermarket within a two-minute timeframe?” they inwardly groan. They kick themselves metaphorically and make flimsy excuses to move on. “Must go Bert, this frozen pizza’s getting quite warm! Take care!”

You’ve done it. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it.

But really, why don’t we have time to stop and pass the time of day with the people we ask this question of? When did “How are you?” become a byword for ‘I’m really very polite you know, but I’m in far too much of a hurry to care”?

We are all so busy, time slips by without us even noticing. Life is so full of endless commitments to school, work, paying the bills, checking our emails, that we have stepped aboard the treadmill and begun to treat each other as just another task to complete as quickly as possible. When was the last time you really sat and listened to another person and truly heard what they are saying?

I used to travel to work on the train as most of you know and day after day, everyone there (including me) was wrapped up in their own electronic world, tapping away at spreadsheets on a laptop or uploading attachments to presentations. Reading John Grisham’s latest on their Kindle.

Being very busy and important, scrolling through urgent phone messages, texting their boss. Resolutely ignoring their fellow passengers at all costs.

No one ever spoke to each other on the journey, we just concerned ourselves with our deliberate isolation until it was time to rise and wait by the doors in collective silence to exit the train. All of us, communicating with the outside world without ever actually speaking to one another face to face.

We no longer notice the leaves on the trees or the clouds in the sky when we walk down the street. We don’t talk to people working in shops. We’re too engrossed in the screens of our smartphones to do that.

We no longer pick up the phone to talk, we can just send a text whilst simultaneously reading an email from Jane in the next office.

Busy, busy, busy.

The irony of writing this on an electronic device is not lost on me, dear reader. I do intend to take my own advice, believe me.

My entire job is focused around listening to and helping others, but I tend to switch off when I get home and I need to make a conscious effort to make sure I see real meadows, not just the artificial ones on my work computer screen in the windowless office I sit in all day.

How many times have you emailed someone who sits a two-minute walk away from you? It’s easier, isn’t it, then getting up and having an actual conversation with them? I know I do it regularly, and yet I’m very aware of how ridiculous it is. I even texted my daughter from the sofa the other night, and she texted me back…all the way from her bedroom.

I do wonder what the world was like before the invention of all the devices which only serve to make us so much busier then ever before. They were created to make life easier, simpler, better. Yet in the end, they have caused us to lose the focus of life itself.

So, the next time you find yourself asking someone “How are you?”, try to stop and take the time to really listen. After all, you asked the question.

What have we to lose except a few minutes of our precious time?

My To-Do List for This Week

Get outside and breathe fresh air
Notice the sunset.
Smile at someone you don’t know.*

*Disclaimer: Smiling at a person unknown to you may have the effect of them clutching their smartphone uneasily whilst crossing the road to get away from you as quickly as possible. I know, because I’ve done it before. Do not let this deter you. One day, someone will look up from their busy life and maybe, just maybe…they’ll smile back at you.

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Calling Out The Mothership

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I only recently decided to revive this blog after a long absence. The story of our emigration had been told to the extent that it needed to be.

No-one needed to read any more about our lack of furniture, friends or family back in those early days. Much less the tears and snot involved in me missing my family.

So I have made the decision that this blog will from now on have no direction whatsoever, rather like me. I will waffle on about whatever takes my fancy on any given day, and you are invited to share in my (hopefully) regular musings of whatever occurs to me to write.

If you don’t want to follow the often worrying contents of my mind, that’s okay too. I probably won’t notice anyway, I’ll be too busy talking utter rot either here or on here or Facebook, as usual.

You may as well, though. After all, JK Rowling has  famously stated that Harry Potter ‘just strolled into my mind one day, fully formed’, so maybe I too will become a genius millionaire writer and philanthropist and go live in a Scottish castle sometime soon.  That’d be ‘rad’, as the kids say nowadays. And you can say you read the first edition, too!

This post is in honour of mothers everywhere. Mothers are rather like idiots; if you’re not one yourself, you certainly know one.

And it has to be said that a large proportion of us turn into idiots only once we become a parent, where previously we have been well-adjusted and competent human beings capable of rational thought and a manageable laundry basket.

So mums are worthy of a post, bearing in mind that Mother’s Day is almost upon the UK population.

My own mother is what people describe as a ‘character.’ She is small in stature (like me) and openly opinionated (unlike me, at least in real life). She tans easily and has beautiful brown eyes.

These attributes are open sources of envy to me, having spent a lifetime cursing my pale complexion and hoping my freckles might eventually join up and give me an enviable tan if I sat in the sun long enough.

They didn’t.

(And I don’t sit in the sun any more, by way of a disclaimer to the horrified Australians shaking their heads and tutting loudly at this shocking disclosure).

My mum is the original Mrs Malaprop, I’m certain that Charles Dickens must somehow have travelled in time and used her for his inspiration.

This is the woman who refers to ‘Bonsai Beach’ in Sydney and, when my older sister requested a compilation album one Christmas, boldly entered the record shop (it was the 80’s, darlings) and asked the horrified sales assistant if they sold ‘copulation records’. I imagine the poor man is still recovering from this ordeal today.

She often calls me to tell me what disaster has befallen her that day, from discovering she’s wearing one high heeled blue shoe and one flat black shoe. On that occasion, she only looked at her feet because she wondered why she kept tripping up.

As I get older, I open my mouth and my mother invariably comes out. While this would have caused me untold agony as a teenager, now I couldn’t be prouder.

Back when I was 13, I remember being genuinely disgusted that my mother had never held aspirations of being a pop star. Now, I see that she’s a superstar all in her own right.

My mum faces every challenge that life presents to her with her sleeves rolled up and a look in her eye that says ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.’  Life still hasn’t got the better of her.

I live my life every day with her as my benchmark, and hope I can be every bit the kick-ass awesome mother that she’s always been. She has been with me every step of the way of my own often calamitous journey through motherhood, and I suspect in the early days that I may have mislaid my children or forgotten to feed them at all at times if it wasn’t for her.

So yes, I may be an idiot, but I’m an idiot that loves my children unconditionally and I look forward to providing hours of unintentional entertainment to them in the same way as my mum still does to me.

If you have even only one parent in your life, treasure them. Yes, if you’re young you might think that they’re a source of unimaginable embarrassment and shame. You’re right, they are. But so are you.

It’s only as you get older that you begin to realise what a rare gem it is to have someone in your life who loves you unconditionally. Who will fight for you, cheer you on, put your happiness above their own, again and again and again.

Forgive you and start again, when they’d never do that for anyone else.

Be sure to tell your own idiots that you love them, as they love you – because after all, you’re their idiot too.