Updated: Aug 25
“Don't bore me with the details of your indigestion
How are you was a greeting, not a question”
When was the last time you spoke to an old friend, acquaintance or a relative and asked them how they were doing? Maybe yesterday or even this morning? I am going to take a wild guess and say that their response was “Good” or “Fine” or “Great'', following which, the conversation seamlessly went on to address the weather, COVID or the Tokyo Olympics! If this has happened to you recently, you are not alone.
We have been using “How are you” as a greeting for decades, maybe even centuries, to the point that this is now a rhetorical question. When we ask someone how they’re doing, we use it as a conversation starter, not an attempt at gathering rich information or insight into their well-being. If anything, giving an honest response to that question may even be seen as over-sharing and unnecessary!
So why are we so averse to knowing how someone is really doing? As a psychologist, I have some theories:
We do not have the emotional bandwidth to cater to their emotional needs (if, let’s say, they are sad or lonely or anxious)
We as a society have not normalized feeling anything other than “fine” or “good” or “great”
We are in a hurry to get the “small talk” out of the way and get to the actual point of the call or the interaction (with little regard to how the other person is doing)
We, as individuals, may not be confident about being able to effectively address someone else’s difficult emotions
Now I understand that most of us have been conditioned to start a conversation this way and to move away from that habit will take time and effort. However, we are not completely at a loss. In order to start a new trend- one that provides a real chance at human connection, we may have to take a deeper look at the reasons for why our existing system is problematic.
Over centuries, humans have progressed and successfully managed to keep their species going because of a centre in our brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This amazing part of our brain has developed tremendously in humans. It allows us to think rationally, make effective decisions and even employ higher order concepts like morality and ethics. There is another thing that the PFC allows which is central to human connection and that is empathy! When we feel empathy, we are able to feel and experience (to some extent) what the other person is feeling. It is empathy that has allowed humans to develop deep connections with each other and it is these deep associations that build communities. Communities help us look out for each other and in turn, increase our chances of survival. So empathy isn’t just important in helping the other person feel understood but is also extremely beneficial to us as a species.
So how do we develop empathy and incorporate it in our small talk?
We can start by being more empathetic and tolerant to others' honest and factual statements about their predicament, rather than buying into their clichéd responses to our clichéd "how are you". Not noticing (or wanting to notice) what is behind that “fine” is a dead-end on our journey to developing empathy in that instance!
Secondly, we can’t just demand that the other person share how they are feeling with us, but we can control how much we share with others.
We can either be honest and share how we are really doing or continue to stick to our ‘fine’s. By changing our response, we may show the other person that it is ok to not be ok, to normalize painting an honest picture about your well-being. Hopefully, in doing this, the other person gets the courage to share their feelings too. Perhaps, eventually, we are able to change the trend which has been keeping us trapped in superficial and meaningless interactions and can take us deeper into the care and concern we feel towards our fellow humans.
Written by - Anagha Bhave
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