16 Jul 2020

How Are You? {and why we should keep asking it}

Yes, I do want to know.

I get that you doubt me. Experience has taught me to skim this question and offer up the expected responses:

“Good, and you?”, “Couldn’t be better!” and the more local one, “Ok la, coping”.

I did once attempt to actually answer the question, and started launching into some detail about what I was going through. The poor person looked at once flummoxed and frustrated.

Right now, everyone seems to be going through the same thing  in a billion variations, and we can well be too tired to ask.

Historically, this question has been asked for more than three hundred years, its earliest use traced to Anglo-Saxon origin and often related to an inquiry about one’s state of health and had variants including:

How is it with you?

How do you today?

How goes the world with you?

Mockery becomes humans, so we have this record of an exchange between a man and his dog from a 1748 translation of Terrance’s Comedies:

Gnat[ho]. Gnatho greets his dearest dear Friend Parmeno with his best Wishes: how are you?

Par[meno]. On my Legs.

Gnat[ho]. Pshaw, I know that : — — but dost thou see Nothing here that thou dost not like ?

Par[meno]. Yes, you.


Understandably, you and I have both thought and heard it said that this question should be tossed. Really, why bother asking if we aren’t interested.

I disagree.

We have to keep asking this question.

Here’s why.

The person asking it gets a chance to interrupt the typical self-absorbed heart-brain circuitry. Sure it is a fetch to claim this will develop the needed quality of empathy, but it does help force us to focus, even if only so momentarily briefly, on another person.

Secondly, homo sapiens need meaningful emotional connection. While this question may be posed as one is passing another along the corridor, and probably won’t lead to a lengthy discourse and disclosure, it is far better than an icy non-recognition of a fellow human being.

As an Asian where words aren’t the currency of interest, where affection is more often expressed in acts of service, I remember feeling so good the first time I traveled to Australia and was greeting everywhere by total strangers.


But yes, we have reasons to be cynical.

Why expect anyone to ask since everyone is fighting some battle?

Why get asked if the asker isn’t really going to wait around for a proper answer?

Why ask If i am not genuinely interested?

These are all valid.

But rather than toss out a good thing which we haven’t learnt to do well, perhaps we can learn to do it better?

Today, I asked this question of several persons I cared about — via text — this way:

“How are you? I know it’s not an easy one to answer. So why not give me a one-word response that comes most promptly to mind?”

I got replies.

And — I got asked back!

If you actually know the person some, and have figured out how not to live your life at blur-speed, then variants of this question can be employed:

“How is {something specific} lately?”

“How is your health?”

“How are you with working from home?”

“How are the kids/dog/cat/plants/parents?”

Every bit of connection with another living, breathing being touches Life. It may be in our time where there is so much noise and people engage in shouting matches, this question, softly posed, could be a harbinger of better days.

I go to my journal often and ask myself this Q. After all, the greatest discovery I am responsible for, is the knowledge of myself.

As I rant and ramble, spilling ink on paper, sense and nonsense jostle for space. Me, a convoluted summation of feelings, sensations, thoughts and ideals, pains and regrets, prayers with and without words…

How am I?

I guess it does depend on which part of me you would like to know for each bit is a story of its own.

The stories interlace and sometimes the plot gets stuck. At other times, one story seems to runaway and all I am catching my breath trying to make sense of it. Most times though, the stories make me feel like I am living multiple lives.

So perhaps, my answer depends on whether there’s a dominant story playing and whether I can find the words to explain it to you. Or perhaps, it’s mostly a flimsy answer that says, “I am trying to live my stories out”, and since I am alive, yea, ‘I’m good’ will be an accurate answer.

What about you?

How are you?

(share a one-word answer in the comment, and let’s see the responses)

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