“How are you?”

Language is funny. We grow up learning the many rules of language, not realizing how arbitrary it all really is. A sentence can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. Slang breaks conventional language “rules” all the time. We speak differently to a friend than we do our boss. Tone and body language can convey more meaning than a string of words.

There must have been a time when the question, “how are you?” really meant when it looks like it means. When it was a real question, rather than a casual greeting exchanged between aquintances with nothing else to say. I believe there are still times when it is asked with real intent, and with real mutual trust established between parties.

But more often the phrase is used with absolutely no expectation for a real answer. And in fact, the bizzare but powerful rules of society cautions against answering that question honestly, in order to avoid the embarrassing phenomenon of “oversharing.”

And yet the phrase I most often hear in the wake of a suicide or suicide attempt is:

“They seemed fine.”

And why wouldn’t they? I’d be willing to bet the average person is asked, “how are you” at least 10 times a week. And more than likely their response 9/10 times is, “I’m fine.” Or something along those lines.

Over the past few years I’ve tried to be more honest when people ask how I’m doing. Not uncomfortably honest, just a little less stuck in the mundane routine of “how are you”/”I’m fine” conversations.

I’ll answer:

“I’m alright.”

“I’ve been better.”

“Eh, I’m ok.”

“I’m doing so well!”

“I’m struggling.”

The answer depends on how well I know the person. And depends on, get this, how I’m actually doing.

But I’m going to be honest. Maybe uncomfortably honest (watch me go society!) It’s REALLY hard and often uncomfortable to answer this question honestly. Sometimes it feels like people are judging you for “complaining.” They often respond uncomfortably. I often feel like debbie downer. Sometimes real and genuine conversations come from this kind of honesty, but more often people aren’t sure what to do with it.

And I think that’s total crap (sorry, I’m a bit passionate about this).

If you really care about a person enough to ask them how they are, you should care enough to listen to their answer. Their REAL answer. Not a scripted, passing greeting. Obviously you don’t expect much from the checker at the grocery store when they ask this question. But when a friend, fellow church goer, or family member asks this… Is it too much to ask to want some compassion when you answer? To not be afraid to answer with a little more honesty?

People are afraid to talk about the hard stuff. Sufferers of mental illnesses feel they have a dark secret to hide. Someone struggling at home slaps on a smile for everyone outside. Many LGBTQ+ people are closeted. People who NEED support feel there is no one to turn to.

And saying, “hello, I’m here! I asked how they were doing!” is not good enough.

Society needs people who really care. Who ask meaningful questions and accept honest, even uncomfortable answers.

So next time you ask someone, “how are you?” REALLY ask it. And make sure they know you’re ready to take time, and listen.

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