How to Answer the Question People Ask You Most
It may seem automatic but it's part of the glue of your relationships.
Posted October 10, 2015
It probably won’t take you long to come up with the right answer to “What’s the most frequent question you’re ever asked?” If you’re stuck, though, put yourself in this situation: You’re stepping outside your door to get the mail and bump into your neighbor. What do you say, and what are you asked in return?
There’s no official data on this, but I’ll venture to guess that “How are you?” turns out to be the most common question you're asked during an average day. If you’re not the one being asked, chances are you're asking the question yourself pretty often. It’s not just people you meet or see in the course of your job or daily activities. Call a customer service line, and invariably the agent will ask “How are you today?” (even though you will never see this person or have another phone conversation). Given the thousands of calls that must come in on a daily basis to the average 800 number, it’s doubtful the person really wants to know the answer but is just reading from a script.
But you may also have come to feel like the question, and your response, are scripted. “How are you?” is inevitably followed by “Good (or fine), how are you?” You don’t even stop to think whether you’re really that good or not, nor does the person asking you the question really ponder your answer. You're both exchanging common pleasantries that aren’t intended to carry real communicative meaning.
It would probably then take you by surprise if one of the people you asked replied, “I just found out my aunt passed away.” That might jolt you out of your conversational lethargy.
This question of how much to self-disclose when you’re asked a question about your internal state is one relationship researchers often pursue. After all, if you’re trying to deepen the quality of a relationship, you may be willing to take that plunge in which you share your inner feelings or experiences. The 36 questions that can deepen your relationship quiz was actually based on the idea that the more personal the question—the more self-disclosure it required—the deeper the connection it could make between you and a partner.
Research on self-disclosure consistently reinforces the point that you can promote intimacy by revealing your innermost feelings. Reflecting, perhaps, the increasing presence of social media in our daily lives, much of this research focuses on self-disclosure on Facebook, in texts, and emails—in other words, not in face to face (“F2F”) situations.
Perhaps the closest recent research on self-disclosure that can provide a guide comes from a study conducted by University of Haifa’s Nurit Tal-Or and Michal Hershman Shitrit (2015) on the liking of reality TV participants. The question Tal-Or and Hershman-Shitrit investigated was whether people would like media characters who self-disclosed a lot or a little about their inner states.
You might be able to relate to this study yourself: How do you feel when contestants in a dance or vocal competition tell the camera how they’re feeling? Chances are this is one of the hooks that keeps you involved in the show. Confirming this idea, Tal-Or and Hershman-Shitrit found that participants did like their reality show contestants to self-disclose, but they preferred the self-disclosure to evolve gradually.
In our F2F relationships, similarly, it seems that we prefer self-disclosure to occur as if you’re dipping your toe into cold water. Don’t take the plunge but instead go bit by bit. Returning to the frequently-asked question, then, it seems that to blurt out your innermost feelings would not be warranted when you’re greeting a relative stranger.
On the other hand, not enough self-disclosure can also be off-putting. An automatic “Good, how are you?” response that leaves our lips without prior contemplation may seem unduly superficial when offered to people we know well. It’s made that much worse by the fact that you’re returning the question with the same question. This exchange, which can take just a couple of seconds, does nothing to advance the connection you have with a person who shares some portion of your life.
It’s worth trying to find that Goldilocks balance between too much and not enough self-disclosure with your interaction partners during the day. Part of the equation is the closeness of your connection but your personality is also a factor: Highly extraverted people, for example, will have less difficulty sharing their inner states.
The closeness of your connection also plays a role. Obviously the woman in my example who talked about her husband’s death wasn’t very close to her interaction partner, which is what made her response so jarring. With someone you know very well, though, you might share the fact that you’re in a bad mood, that you’re having a bad day, or that you had an argument with your teenage child.
If it’s a person you’d like to know better, replace the auto-reply with something a bit deeper—"Well, things have been better” or “Really good, I’ve just had X [whatever that is] happen to me.” Don’t take the immediate plunge to the depths, but go farther than toe-level.
The main principle to keep in mind is to put some thought into it. The automaticity of the interaction makes it easy and mindless, but it’s also the mindlessness that makes it seem so impersonal and uncaring.
Asking and answering questions, is, after all, what keeps connections alive. Yours can become that much more lively and fulfilling, helping to boost your well-being and that of the people in your social world.
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Tal‐Or, N., & Hershman‐Shitrit, M. (2015). Self‐disclosure and the liking of participants in reality TV. Human Communication Research, 41(2), 245-267. doi:10.1111/hcre.12047
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015