There’s something which has been getting on my nerves for quite some time, and I’ve been back and forth about whether to write this piece or not. I’ve decided to do it anyway because it’s better to have written and lost than never to have written at all, but I’d genuinely love to know if I’m the only person this annoys, so please let me know your opinion on the matter.
What’s the bloody point in asking ‘how are you?’ when we don’t actually answer truthfully, or want to hear a real response from the person we ask? It’s quite rare that someone will honestly reply “I’m terrible. My depression has come back, the bathroom ceiling fell through this morning and I just went to get a Kit Kat from the cupboard but I forgot I’d already eaten them all.” Instead we reply “Yeah, fine thanks. How are you?”
I assume we’re particularly bad for it in the UK, what with our incessant stiff upper-lip and ingrained politeness to not talk about ourselves for too long, but an unsilenceable part of my brain can’t help but wonder whether all of this ‘yeahfinethankshowareyou’ malarkey is contributing to the worrying state of our mental health. By not allowing ourselves the chance to express how we’re really feeling, we’re constantly suppressing our emotions.
I know that I’m really lucky to have an amazing group of friends with whom I can talk about anything; heartache, mental health issues, family problems and the weird blobs of congealed blood that appear in your pants during especially heavy menstrual cycles. When you’re beyond uncomfortably bloated and sat hunch-backed on the toilet, with four of your closest friends around you, cheering you on and rolling you a fag to smoke on the bog to help ease the constipation, you know you’ve got a solid bunch of people who aren’t going anywhere fast… until the bowel eases up and the smell takes over.
The thing is though, that not everybody has that. When I fail to respond honestly to someone I’ve bumped into on the street who’s asked how I am, it doesn’t really matter if I’ve been having the shittest day of my life because I know I can get home and get everything off my chest, either with my male life partner (writing ‘boyfriend’ in a blog post makes me want to barf), friends or family. But if you don’t have the kind of unit who’ll sit with you for hours, dissecting everything you’ve got going on in minute detail until you feel a weight’s been lifted, when someone you don’t know very well asks how you are, you’ve got two choices:
Option 1: Tell them how you really are, leaving out no details about how you cried in the shower this morning. They’re unlikely to know how to respond and will probably be left thinking you’re an overly-emotional train-wreck of a person who doesn’t understand the concept of TMI and that they’re nowhere near close enough to you to handle that level of personal and emotional baggage.
Option 2: Gently brush off any honesty by smiling, nodding and saying you’re fine.
Every time our autopilot kicks in and we recite those few meaningless words, we squash the need to express how we are truly feeling… for the sake of preserving conversational politeness, for crying out loud!
We use this question as a way of elongating the conversation without actually having to say anything. "How was your weekend?" has got much of the same dullness but, in our particular pocket of western culture, it actually warrants a bit more of a response and we feel less self-involved when talking about ourselves. If your granny died last Saturday, and someone at work asks how your weekend was on Monday morning, you’re probably not unlikely to say something along the lines of "Not great really – my Gran passed away." Cue the awkward oh-god-how-do-we-handle-a-death-related-conversation British dilemma, followed by the supposedly grief-alleviating promise of "a nice cup of tea”.
But would the same thing happen if a colleague came into the kitchen to reheat their tuna pasta and said "Hiya, you ok?"? I think not. I really doubt you’re going to tell them about your grandparent in this situation because it doesn’t feel specific enough and we (on the whole) don’t like the idea that we’re talking about ourselves too much.
Ok, so I’m not preposing we actually banish the phrase ‘how are you’ from the English language and m
aybe this is a non-issue that I’m making into a big deal because I find the ritual so tedious and unnecessary. But am I really the only one who feels this way? The sad thing is, though, that I’m completely aware that even after getting moderately frustrated about this tiny, quite definitely insignificant-on-The-Scale-Of-Importance problem, I will still ask twenty-eight people how they are tomorrow because old habits die hard, and making conversation – whilst often mundane – is quite necessary, apparently… Even though most of the time we’d all much rather be checking our phones and picking crisps out of our molars.
Maybe the solution is just trying to delve a little deeper on the off-chance that someone really does need an ear lent to them (figuratively, of course). I’ll test this theory out on the next Uber driver’s car I get into. Who knows – we may end up being the best of friends! Or he may just tell me to mind my own damn business. Only one way to find out, though…
Anyway, sorry – I’ve been talking too much. You ok?