The New Meanings of "How Are You?"

Perhaps for the first time ever, we want this question answered honestly.

Posted May 19, 2020

Six feet apart, a neighbor and I asked each other: "How are you?"

We always ask, but it is different now.

That question springs from 21st-century mouths reflexively, encoded into us since childhood as a civilizational signifier. But these days, once out, it hangs between us — hovers, heavy and electric, sparks flicking from its unprecedented heft.

Like choir singers, the neighbor and I replied at the same time: "Fine."  

A shudder of relief flushed both of us, the question now deflated and defused.

"How are you?" has ceased being meaningless. It is no longer an empty cliché.

In our pre-lockdown lives, few lines were more compulsory. Even ardent introverts extended this baseline biscuit of engagement. Before 2020, that was almost always all "How are you?" meant: bare proof of coexistence in a crowded world. I see you. How. Are. You.

Which, in a sense, is beautiful. But built into its reflexivity was patent, almost requisite dishonesty: Back then, we asked "How are you?" often more to evince our own decency and cultural-ritual fluency than to evoke actual answers, much less honor/address/process those.

Okay, back then sometimes we meant it, such as after accidents or upon meeting long-lost friends. But nearly always not.

When asked, one mechanically answered "fine" because who wants to upset others or be called a drama queen for saying "dying" or "bankrupt" instead?

How many centuries ago did "fine" become our standard answer, and not even "great" or "okay?" How many centuries ago, if ever, did our ancestors, asked "How are you?" reveal the truth?

"How are you?" matters now because a certain virus is contagious. Anxious — our eyes seeking often-unaccustomed contact over the anonymizing blur of masks which fur our words — we ask. And now, instead of la-la-la-I-am-not-listening, we brace like mountaineers or grenadiers for all replies.

This does not mean we've suddenly become compassionate.

Okay, it's partly that. Deluged by death tolls, horrified by handshakes, and lonesome, we now see those strands between us and loved ones and life itself as fragile, febrile filaments. We want our friends, families, coworkers, neighbors, even strangers to be "fine" — because we do not want them to suffer or die. What monster would?

We also want them fine because the fewer un-fine individuals there are around the world, the less horrific the pandemic. Asking "How are you?" is not mere friendliness but data-mining and amateur epidemiology. We want the truth these days because the fewer un-fine individuals exist, the sooner we can return to workplaces, beaches, and coffee-bars. We ask "How are you?" to gain empirical evidence. We need to know.

And we ask, as our ancestors in plague days surely did — calling to each other through forests, across open sewers, clutching talismans because they'd never heard of germs — "How are you?" out of abject fear. However illness spreads — and experts argue over how this virus transmits — we know only that it does.

In a survival-strategy sense, asking "How are you?" helps us decide whom to avoid. "How are you?" now means "Hello, might you unintentionally kill me?"

We ask also because we fear that not asking would make us look rude, unread, even uncool. These days, when illness tops all conversation topics, who wants to be the oaf or iconoclast who never mentions COVID-19 while yak-yak-yakking about feldspar or beer?