How are you?

People who know me well will have heard me say that this is a question I have long hated. The reasons go something like this:

Friend: How are you?
Me: (Actually, I’m ill. Still. In fact, this week, I feel crap. Do you want to know this or don’t you want to know this? If you don’t want to know this, why are you even bothering to ask?) I’m OK. How are you?

I hate it because, for me, it’s a question that lacks honesty. From time to time it’s been suggested to me that I’m reading too much into this. It’s a polite greeting. Nothing more. So why don’t I just treat it as such?

Well, that’s a good question. Where I live, for example, it’s quite common to be greeted with “Alright?” to which (or so I am told) the correct response is “Alright?” It’s an essentially meaningless exchange along much the same lines as “Hello”. We might as well say “Fluzbot” or something, except, of course, that “Fluzbot” is not a word any of us are familiar with, which makes it slightly risky. After all, it might mean “You swine!”. You never know! Usually, however, expression and tone tell us all we need to know. It’s like two dogs wagging their tails:

A: (Smiling) Fluzbot? (I’m friend not foe!)
B: (Smiling) Fluzbot! (Me too!)
A and B: (Good. That’s settled then.)

The intent is simply to put one another at ease.

So far, so good. However, it seems to me that the “How are you?” question, at least among friends, doesn’t operate on quite the same level as this. Rather, it has a range of acceptable responses from “Fine, thank you…” all the way through to “I’ve had a rotten cold this week…” That’s why it’s problematic. Whilst there are a range of acceptable responses, a response is acceptable only in so far as it is perceived to be “normal”. It’s “normal” to be well. It’s “normal” to have a cold and get better. It’s “not normal” to live in the shadowy lands of bereavement or chronic illness. These are not the stuff of polite conversation. They are disturbing places. Places we would rather not go. You can tell this by the way the question may change when a person is known to be recently bereaved. Those who want to show they care will ask it differently. It’s as if the inhabitants of this shadowy land need special acknowledgement. They are “not normal”, so they must be specifically invited to speak. Even when they do, they still risk dismissal and they know it. It’s a risky business emerging from the shadowy land.

The shadowy land. In depth psychology, the “shadow” is representative of all the things about ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge, but instead seek to hide or destroy. In its worst form, this is seen as being worked out in events such as the Holocaust, where the alien, the sick and the criminal were systematically dehumanised and destroyed. Rightly, we are shocked by such events. We dare not believe that we are capable of such things. And yet… yet there is a very real sense in which we continue to push those “other” from us into the shadows. The “migrants” are just one example. LGBT folks would be another.

Back at the beginning of my illness, the very first time I went out in my wheelchair, I had the following conversation with someone I knew:

Me: Hello!
Friend: (With apparent concern) Hello! What on earth has happened to you?
Me: I had a virus and now I can’t walk.
(Short silence)
Friend: (Looking at wheelchair) Well, don’t get too used to it!

It’s a conversation I’ve always remembered because it underlined for me the reality that I was now facing. In her world, people with viruses got better. Hence the only plausible explanation for my use of a wheelchair must be that I was getting some kind of kick out of it. In other words, that there was something not quite right about me. Hence in just those few brief words she informed me of my future place in the world. Life in the shadows had begun.

Interestingly, it was only this morning that the full significance of the words she used struck me. The fact is, I have “got used to it”. I have had to “get used to it”, as has my family. Not getting used to it has only ever been an option for those the shadow has not touched.

How are you?

The question invites and expects answers that fit in the safe, comfortable world of normality. When most folks say, “I’m fine, thank you”, the chances are that at least some of the time this will be true. However, when I say it, it’s never true. So, effectively, the real me disappears into the shadows. Repeatedly. On the other hand, if I do reply more honestly, I risk the averted eyes, the shuffling feet or the cheery brush-offs that tell me that the shadows is actually where I belong. That’s why I hate the question. Day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year it acts as a continual challenge to my right to exist. And if that sounds overly dramatic, I don’t care. I am weary of it.

So what’s to be done? Well, frankly, I don’t know. No doubt, the question will continue to be asked and life will continue in the shadows, where those of us with chronic illnesses will plot and scheme for the destruction of the rest of humankind… 😉 Alternatively, we could try the court jester approach and attempt to reclaim the question through humour:

Friend: How are you today, Ros?
Me: (With an evil grin) I’m sorry. My brain is a bit slow today. Could you repeat the question?

More suggestions welcome…

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8 thoughts on “How are you?

  1. ananonymousoutsider

    Wow. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been thinking about the way “How are you?” is (mis)used for years now, and you put it perfectly. I have chronic mental illness, and some times it is so tempting to just respond with complete honesty and watch them reel, because I hate saying “I’m fine” or “I’m great” when that is basically a straight up lie.

    Again, thanks for posting.

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  2. minidvr

    Perhaps the question for us is, how do we discern the genuine inquiry about us and our health and the almost automatic greeting, which hello represents.

    I when I meet friends will generally ask how they have been (since we last met or spoke), particularly if I am aware that they’ve experienced some difficulty. This is genuine concern, rather than a casual, throwaway line.

    But the points you make here are valid ones, and perhaps might make me think twice before asking the question casually in the future.

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    1. Ros Post author

      For me, using different words is certainly helpful. Somehow, the kind of “How are you?” that is genuinely intended to express concern still manages to emphasise “difference” in a way that isn’t always helpful. It’s a good start, but it still starts from a position that assumes ‘wellness’.

      A Facebook friend who does hospital chaplaincy type work suggested that perhaps a better question, if one wants to open the door for an honest response, is “How are you managing at the moment?”I would concur with that. It’s a lot less likely to make my hackles rise. The person still faces the decision as to whether they want to come out of the shadows or not – which can be a considerable challenge – but at least it opens the door. There is, within it, the implicit acknowledgement that “managing” is what we are talking about and that it’s possible – yesterday or tomorrow, if not today.

      Hope that helps.

      R.

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  3. Joyce Hackney aka Rhianwen Denimore

    Once I realised it wasn’t a real question, being too honest to go into too much detail, I worked out a series of stock responses :
    ‘ Never mind me, how are you ?’
    ‘Same old same old, what about you ?’
    ‘Could be worse, how are you ?’
    ‘Not too bad thanks.’
    ‘Overworked and overweight.’
    ‘Getting older.’
    ‘Overworked and underpaid but enjoying life.’
    I adjust the tone and add phrases and questions as appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Ros Post author

      In other words, you avoid the question 😉 I’ve done the same. But I’ve found it’s a lot harder to be so upbeat about it on the ‘down’ days. On those days, the question can make me want to scream.

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