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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