Stop Asking, ‘How Are you’?
Why do we ask questions when we don’t want to know the answer?
I hate it when someone asks me, “how are you?” Actually, I don’t really mind the question when someone I don’t know asks. I recognize it for what it is — conversational fluff. Most of the time it’s asked in passing and no one is really listening to the answer. We never expect an honest response, because to really delve into the question requires time and space. The time to hear the nuances of someone’s life that led them to be in the state they’re in, and the space to feel safe to disclose personal details.
I don’t like it when people I know ask me, “how are you?” The question has taken on new meaning since my sister died. I can’t begin to answer and so I usually don’t. I can be open to talking about the complexity of my feelings, but sometimes I’m not. Usually, my openness to sharing depends on the present company and whether I feel comfortable crying in that physical space. There are few social situations away from the privacy of my home where I feel comfortable crying, which means that when I’m out in public, I usually can’t get into it. To answer with the typical good, fine or ok feels like a slap to my sister’s face. I don’t like having to lie to make it through an awkward social encounter — she deserves more than that.
The question also feels loaded. I get the impression that people really want me to be ok, and to admit that I’m less than ok would be a disappointment. They want me to be ok so that they can feel the freedom to return to the typical nuances of our relationship. But, grief is messy, which is why so many of us don’t want anything to do with someone else’s grief in the first place. It’s the unsolvable problem, and it’s hard to be around someone who is really hurting. To tell people the truth to their ‘how are you?’ question would be an invitation to my constant heartache. The pain oscillates from dull throbbing to sharp stabs. When I begin to think of the enormity of my loss, I feel a deep chasm in my chest and I am lost in what it really means for my sister’s life to have been cut short by 50 years.
In thinking about the Ring Theory (crude image above), I’m finding that I can’t answer the how are you question for anyone within the inner ring (my immediate family and my sister’s…