Everybody asks this question. The checkers at the grocery store ask it. The teachers I walk past in the hallway at school ask it. The folks at church ask. The friend or colleague you work with says it. The barista asks me. Everybody asks everybody this question. How are you doing? What’s more, universally, everyone gives the same answer, “I’m fine.” A counselor I knew said, “Responses like ‘fine,’ ‘alright,’ and ‘good’ are not good responses because they fail to provide a genuine analysis of how we’re doing.”
Our quick and shallow responses at times remind me of the Jeep and motorcycle culture. There is a tradition in the motorcycle culture for riders to acknowledge each other when passing an approaching rider. They acknowledge each other by pointing two fingers down, signifying to keep both wheels on the ground and to ride safe. In the Jeep culture, drivers will acknowledge each other similarly with a wave. Apparently, after researching, there are a lot variations to this wave. Nonetheless, it’s an acknowledgement. I don’t mean that these traditions are shallow but they are not deep and long lasting. Riders and drivers don’t learn a lot about their community members in this way. They simply acknowledge each other with a protocol, a formality and then they are on their way.
It’s the same for us in many ways. We see each other approaching in a hallway, in an aisle, at a gathering, at work, etc. We know we have to say something, some necessary acknowledgment because there’s a social contract and walking past another without any acknowledgement is rude. So, we fall to the familiar.
“Hello, how are you?”
“I’m fine and you?”
And that’s that, cultural obligation satisfied. I’m aware I’m stacking the deck. I’m aware that there are many instances where asking someone how they are doing will actually bear deep, meaningful conversation. I’m too aware of where this works well for me and where it doesn’t. Ironically, this does not work well for me at church. I know this is supposed to be a place where we share each other’s burdens. However, it’s more complicated than simply unburdening myself to the first person who asks. A few years ago I experienced a significant, painful, personal life experience. It’s one of those experiences often credited with severely impacting one’s life. During that time, I was surprised at how many people still asked me how I was doing. Some never said anything to me. It was a brutal thing to endure this question because culturally I was trained to say fine, good, alright; when the reality was, I was tormented. I don’t know how many people truly expected an honest response from me. I don’t know how many people truly had the patience for me to unload about depression, trauma, fits of crying, rejection and misery. I don’t know how a lot of this was not assumed and it pains me to know how many were taken by my fines and alrights. What I truly needed was someone stubborn enough and emotionally intelligent to see through my lies, someone with loving initiative brave enough to say, “I know you’re not doing well. I’m coming over with coffee and I just want to listen.” Nobody ever did that for me.
Some years ago, I had a student named Jonah, good kid, funny and bright. About a year ago, we ran into each other at a tire shop. I was buying tires for my monster truck and he was buying tires for his slammed Lexus. When he saw me, without hesitating, he goes, “Mr. Soza, how are you doing, I mean emotionally?” This wasn’t new for Jonah. I don’t know if he did this to be funny or because he knew most people don’t honestly address their emotions when asked the question. He asked me this a number of times in class when he was my student. However, because he was my student, I never shared anything personal with him, as I believe teachers are bound to do. Nevertheless, Jonah’s better question has not been lost on me. Because of that, I have stopped asking people “How are you doing?” because I’m aware it may lead them to give me a less than genuine response. That’s not what I want and I don’t want to put anyone in that position. Greetings like “Good morning!” and “Good afternoon!” are still in play but rather than following that up with “How are you doing?” I’d much rather identify something personal in order to truly acknowledge the other as an individual. For example, let’s say I’m approaching a colleague in the hallway. I can say “Good morning!” and rather than going to “How are you doing?” I can say, “Hey, thanks for that instructional tip you shared in that email. I think I’m going to try that.” There are so many good things to acknowledge about others. Finally, if I already know someone is going through some trial, I don’t need to name their obvious trial but I can say, “I really care about you and I’m sorry for what you’re going through. How can I help you as you try to move forward?” Or, because I personally know the pain of going through a trial all by yourself, I can say, “Can we schedule some time for me to come over and to talk, to listen, to be a friend to you right now? You shouldn’t have to go through this alone.”
We are too important to nonchalantly pass each other by. A slight change in language, intention and time, may make a world of difference to a lot of people. It’s empowering to know this potential is in all of us.