Updated: Sep 18
By Andrea Lynn Cianflone
Our friends ask it. Colleagues greet us with it in the morning. The local coffee shop welcomes a customer with it. I see it addressed in greeting cards. Well over half of my business correspondence has it. I find it to be an empathic, caring, and polite way of acknowledging the welfare of another person. I am venturing to guess that it ranks on the top one hundred most asked questions, and yet its subsequent response often warrants more investigation to its authenticity:
How are you?
…and of course, there are the one-word responses that accompany it, like:
“good” (voice inflection up; the questioning-the-question response)
“good” (voice inflection down; the life-is-dandy response)
“good” (no voice inflection; the I-do-not-feel-like-talking response)
“good” (voice inflection down up down; the flirtatious response)
...and the hundred other “good” responses to share with humanity.
You get the point.
My intuition from the responses to this question leads me to believe that all is not always good. As a performing artist, I admittedly have had moments performing on stage while going through hardship, loss, and physical illness. In the year I lost my best friend to suicide, I was in the middle of preparing for two large engagements, a world premiere role, and singing for a televised show for 50,000 people sitting in a stadium. Meanwhile, I had to keep smiling to the audience, acquiescing to my least favorite, dreaded adages, “fake it until you make it.” I am aware of what it feels like to perform while feeling emotionally unregulated. I am convinced that after one has felt so many suffering or challenging moments, a more truthful response to “how are you” might be more effective for both parties.
I am intrigued by the question “how are you.” I presume, like myself, that people have found themselves laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. This juxtaposition of emotion says something about the human desire for joy and the struggle to sustain it through the diversely expressed seasons of life. Could it be that we desire this joy so deeply that one would go so far as to fake, cover, suppress, or create a fantasy for these suffering moments? Whether there is a hesitation to embrace that suffering moment through a great cry session with oneself or another person (p.s. it is okay to cry), our responses to “how are you” may also reveal that even amidst any suffering there can exist joy. The “how are you” transactions may unfold as either complaint, ego, or real suffering, and could also encourage warranted changes in our life when we are truly honest in our responses to ourselves and others. In the same way that I must give credence to practicing and fixing inaccuracies within the context of a song, I have found that joyful living is about stepping out on the stage of life and delivering a genuine responsiveness. How could I ever correct any mistakes in a song that I am practicing if I did not first recognize (or become aware by someone else, like a vocal coach) that there was an error to fix?
I have found great comfort in simply stating the truth out loud in times where I have been less than joyful. People may call this awkward but how about we have some more awkward conversations, shall we? I can almost envision a great late night show comedic skit where an employee greets the company’s boss asking, “how are you” only to be followed by the boss’ response, “Well my kid threw up on me on the way to work, our company is about to go bankrupt, and I had no sleep last night because my spouse and I had a terrible argument about my mother-in-law.” Employee walks away weirded out.
I am certainly not advocating to air one’s dirty laundry to the entire world, but I wonder what the course of human history might look like if we started to answer the question “how are you” to ourselves and others with greater simplicity. Think of the progress and possibilities that could ensue. Before I lay down at night, I may speak out to the open dark air, “I feel sad about XYZ.” The tears may begin to roll, but the comfort of those tears may give me a good night sleep. If a person’s response to this common question reveals melancholy, perhaps one could consider this reply: “Well, life could be better right now. I am going through challenges.” This statement is like a pickup musical phrase prompting the listener for the next musical response. The moment becomes a call-to-action, a moment of glory for the listener to offer a source of hope and love to the distressed person. This moment could even diffuse the possibility for the suffering person to project any sadness or anger onto another individual because the attentive listener offered a warm blanket of kindness. These sensitive moments give an opportunity to be vulnerable and may decrease anxiety as I have found for myself. I am hopeful for a new “how are you” generation where people will be singing a tune of the most truthfully responded to question!
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