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Responding to "How Are You?"

Do They Really Want to Know?


Updated November 07, 2011

How many times a week are you asked, "How are you?" It seems to roll off the tongue after "Hi" or "Hello." Literally, "Hi, how are you?" is run together in such a way that you wonder if people even know what they asked, if they want a real answer or if it has just become a robotic greeting.

The question doesn't only come from your dear family and friends. People you pass on the street, people on the phone, just about anyone you encounter for any reason may toss that overused question at you.

We all realize that people have to say something. There has to be some sort of opening line; otherwise, we would just be nodding and grunting at each other. But the question feels strangely awkward sometimes.

The Obligatory Question

The obligatory question really calls out for the obligatory response, "I'm fine" or "I'm doing well." That's how most people reply, even when they are not fine or doing well.

But to say you are doing well when you really are not can feel inappropriate and even annoying to people with chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis. It is honestly difficult to exchange pleasantries when you feel anything but pleasant.

The Set Up

Some people use the "how are you" question as more than an obligatory greeting. They use it as a set up so they can talk about themselves. Sounds a bit convoluted, but some people like to talk about themselves. Their feelings and experiences deserve air-time, or so they think.

We have all known people who have been there, done that. For example, if you share a story about knee pain, they have had a knee pain experience, too. They can match you, if not top you, experience for experience.

The Genuinely Interested

There are people who ask the question and genuinely want to know how you are doing. They ask for the right reasons and listen to your full answer because they truly care. They don't try to one-up your story. They don't offer unsolicited, off-the-wall solutions. They simply care. You might expect this from your closest family members, but sometimes it can be a person you barely know who seems to care the most.

The Quickly Disinterested

It also seems that there are those who are interested in your response, but with one provision -- keep it short. They don't want you to say you are doing well if you're not -- but they aren't interested in every detail from your last doctor's appointment either.

If you offer too many details, the person may not fully understand. They may not feel comfortable asking you to explain. If this is the case, too much information can cause the other person to become disinterested, feel awkward or even to be sorry they asked.

Odd Motivations

You won't always know someone's motivation, though. Recently, I was greeted by a store clerk who asked me how I was doing. I replied, "I'm doing good, how are you?" She got loud and said, "I am doing WELL!" It seems she was amusing herself by offering a free grammar lesson. Clearly unexpected, I felt chastised and found it more irritating than the simply robotic or disinterested exchange that often occurs.

The Bottom Line

Living with a chronic disease is challenging. It is helpful to recognize problems you are having and want to talk about how you are doing, especially when asked. It may be best to discuss your health to any significant degree within a support group or with a select group of people you know will understand.

If you aren't finding that select group easily, be wise and disclose whatever you want to your journal. Yes, on a daily basis, tell it to your journal. It's your outlet, yet it's private. Your journal will never shy away, become disinterested or disappoint you.

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