‘How are you?’ is a loaded question

Sometimes you can't say what's really on your mind.
Sometimes you can't say what's really on your mind.

That morning, the sunshine was bright and clear. The air felt crisp on my cheeks, as welcome as it could be after being awoken at 6am. The call was to get to the hospital. Fast.

There is something about a 6am call that clears the mind. Day-to-day life recedes. Your focus becomes the well-being of the person at the hospital.

And yet the habit of picking up my phone and checking my messages and social media was instinctive. On WhatsApp group photos swam past me of happy group outings. I couldn’t take it, and exited the group, uncaring about the perception of my actions.

On Facebook, comments offering criticism of my writings which otherwise I would have engaged with felt like a knife stab. I blocked their perpetrators. How dare they attack, at this moment? Didn’t they know? But how could they?

But it was when I arrived at the hospital and was asked: “How are you?” that things fell apart. A simple but loaded question. Should it be answered with honesty?

We make that choice dozens of times a day, often unthinkingly. But sometimes instead of the usual brush off of “fine” or “good” which we mutter without a thought, what to say becomes a difficult and weighty choice. I’ve learned that I’m not alone in realising how this simple, often unnoticed, question carries such weight.

It’s hard to admit it but due to social protocol, no one really wants to know the details. It throws out a whole conversation if you answer honestly. To offer anything other than a meaningless platitude contravenes the carefully constructed parameters of social interaction. Linguists often talk about language as a game, with well-rehearsed scripts where the specific words may change but each player must abide by its rules and objectives.

“How are you?” is simply the gateway to the conversation, like ringing a bell. All that is required is that it should be answered, nothing more.

To actually say how you feel will completely flummox the asker and derail the whole interaction. But sometimes you really feel you want to say something – that it really is awful and you just need to tell someone. You need someone to hear it. Knowing “how are you” is not being asked genuinely makes you feel even worse.

On one day, perhaps you can be truthful. But over weeks, even months, the brutal truth is that you have to start asking yourself, should you really be answering in lurid detail?

It feels as though it would be a belittling of the self to let your whole raft of emotions open at that question.

However, if you do not say anything that same person later will berate you for withholding information.

When things are mixed what do you say – some great things are happening but so are some awful ones? That doesn’t fit the bill. No one wants to deal with that level of someone else’s complexity.

Even in today’s world of selfies where every detail of our lives is shared, the implicit question of how you are is never answered truthfully. Instagram depicts lives in soft focus and through rose-tinted lenses. It seems like the truth of “how are you?” is the last remaining vestige of privacy, one whose pain we force ourselves to endure for fear of disrupting the social order.

It’s easy to be flippant about a traditional conversation opener. Sadly, the answer rarely reveals the pain that is hiding inside.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Published: September 29, 2016 04:00 AM


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