‘How are you?’ has become, in whatever language, an almost universal way of saying ‘hello.’
Nobody ever wants the ‘how are you?’ recipient to say anything beyond, ‘I am fine, thank you and how are you?’
Sometimes I forget about this ‘How are you? I am fine’ etiquette and I either respond to ‘how are you?’ with a novel-length tale of woe, sprinkled with some joy (or vice versa) - or, even worse, I interrogate the howareyouer by probing how they really are. Neither of these two alternatives have proved satisfactory because, inevitably, I either give or receive that thing that is sometimes labelled ‘foot in the mouth’.
‘How are you?’ has become a statement of niceness, a verbal gesture of care; it is not a question requiring an answer because it is sort of rhetorical - it is just a form of greeting and, as such, it is lovely.
Just imagine if we really, honestly answered that lovely question, ‘how are you?’ like this:
- I’m tired and I don’t want to talk to you
- My life sucks
- I don’t know
- I’m envious of your perfect life
- I’m bloody sad
- Anthony is deteriorating
- I am on the brink of poverty and wondering if humans can eat grass and leaves
- How the hell do you think I am?
- I am hating the world today
- I am crap
So, you see, you can’t answer the lovely question in those ways because you would seem rude, ungrateful, self-indulgent etc. and the poor howareyouer would never ask you again!
‘How are you? is a bit like ‘What are you doing today?’ because the latter is a question that expects you to be doing either something or nothing, but it mostly wants you to be doing nothing so that the asker of the question can help you do something. So you either have to say ‘I am … ‘ and try to remember your schedule for the day, or you have to be really honest and say, “I am sitting down and I plan to sit down for much of the day, so I don’t want my sitting down interrupted.”
But you can’t say that to the really busy people who care enough to ask you how you are and what you are doing so you say things like, ‘I am about to embroider the paddock with sunflowers’ or else just say you have lots of appointments (but you don’t divulge that most of your appointments are with the chair you are sitting in because you really love the chair and are a bit frightened to get off the chair today.)
How are you?
What are you doing today?