- On one level, “How are you?” is simply a way of making contact.
- It's also a social code, but the code isn't always easy to figure out.
- Knowing what you want in each situation can help you answer the question, no matter what the unrecognized code might be.
Drino* tells me that in the United States, he never knows what to say when someone asks, “How’re you doing?”
In the country where he grew up, he says, the standard reply is something equivalent to “I’m hanging in.” But in the U.S., he always feels that people want something more. “I just don’t know exactly what they want,” he said.
Janine*, who has been trying to get pregnant for several years without success, said, “I hate it when people ask me that question. What do they want to know, really? Don’t they think I’ll shout it out to the world if I do get pregnant? Do they want to show me that they feel sorry for me? Do they think I’m wallowing in self-pity?”
Cori* like many of my clients started a recent therapy session by asking me how I was. Before I could respond, she said she was worried about her children, who were afraid that we were all going to starve to death or die from a bomb dropped by Russia. She was having trouble soothing them because she was so anxious about the state of the world herself. “I talk to some of my friends about it,” she said, “but nobody helps much because we’re all in the same boat. We’re all afraid.”
On one level, “How are you?” is simply a way of making contact, whether acknowledging a neighbor as you pass on the street or starting a work meeting. The best answer to these kinds of questions honors the intention: to make a quick contact. But it’s also good to be honest, and within limits whenever possible. In other words, you don’t have to answer “Great, thanks” if it’s not true. “I’m ok,” “I’m a little under the weather,” or even “I’m kind of struggling with the things that are going on in the world” are perfectly fine responses, depending on the situation and the person with whom you’re talking.
In most cases, the question requires reciprocity. You ask the other person how they’re doing. But in a meeting with your team leader, unless yours is a very relaxed team, it’s not an opening for a conversation but for a meeting.
If the question is the opening of an actual conversation – whether with a friend, a colleague, another business acquaintance, a professor, or a relative – you can offer a little more information. But how do you figure out how much they really want to know? And how do you decide how much you really want to tell them?
The code can be confusing, maybe more so these days than ever before. But a brief self-reflection – one that you probably already do, without necessarily realizing it – can help you figure out the right answer.
For example, after telling me about her concerns about her children, Cori said,
I really do want to know how you are, you know, because even though you’re my therapist, you’re also a person I care about. But I also think I want to know how you’re coping with all of these awful things that are going on. I’m hoping that you have a way of dealing with this that will help me manage it better. But I’m worried that you don’t, that this is how we’re all supposed to be feeling.
So her question was code for “Tell me how you’re doing so that I can see if there’s something else I can be doing with all of these awful things that are going on.”
In therapy, Cori learned that many of our social codes and behaviors have more complex meanings than meets the eye. She also knew I would welcome her effort to tease out what her apparently simple question might mean. And further, she knew that most of us don't deconstruct these routine social interactions outside of therapy.
As often happens with clients, I learned something important from her insights. As she unpacked the different meanings of her casual question about how I was doing, I realized that these ideas could be helpful to both Drino and Janine.
“How are you doing?” can have many different meanings. But you don’t have to figure out what each person who asks you that question really means. You really just have to figure out what you want to say to them.
Most likely, you already do this most of the time. You know when you pass a neighbor on your way to work that you’re not in a position to stop and have a long chat about how you each are really doing. Whether you are doing the initial asking or responding, you are simply acknowledging a connection, reflecting that you know each other and maybe, at some other time, would like to chat (or maybe not).
When your team leader starts a meeting with that question, even if you have had a terrible morning getting your kids ready for school and out the door in time to catch the school bus, and much as you might like to spill to someone, your professional boundaries keep you from spilling here. A simple and straightforward answer is akin to a “here” when a teacher calls the role in school. Or, if you think it’s a signal to start the discussion about an issue you know needs to be discussed, you might add something along the lines of, “I am worried about the XYZ account and think we should take some time to discuss it today.”
Drino*, for example, realized that in his country, the stock answer to “How are you doing?” helped maintain a level of privacy that he preferred. “So I guess I can say ‘I’m hanging in there,’ here, too. I don’t have to spill my guts to everybody who asks me how I’m doing. If I really do want to share a little more, I can. But I get to decide.”
Janine* had a different self-realization. “I think I’m hoping someone will make me feel better,” she said.
And some people do. They let me know they’ve gone through the same thing, and that they got through it one way or another. If I just say what I want to say, whether it’s how bad I’m feeling or that I don’t want to talk about it, some people might not like it, but it might get me a little sense that I’m not alone in this craziness, which is what I think I need to hear!
Sometimes a little self-reflection can also lead to a change in your automatic response. Janine told me later that she had realized that there were some people she knew she shouldn’t share her feelings with, no matter what.
Knowing that you get to decide how much to share, with whom, and when is a powerful tool to keep in your back pocket when you’re trying to decide what someone really means when they ask how you are.
*names and personal info changed for privacy