How are you?
When I left for the United States last summer, I was warned that I might be shocked in the frequency I would be asked to assess my current status; that is, being asked “how are you?”. Despite being prepared, though, it still felt weird when I was addressed by the staff in the store or random passersby on the street that innocent yet terribly personal question. Think about it. A sincere answer to “how are you?” implies a personal ransacking where you clarify for yourself and the person asking how you are feeling, whether you are healthy, if you’re warm or cold, hungry, thirsty, sleepy or just a little bored.
Only that’s not the reply most people expect. I was warned about this too. When you’re asked “how are you?” in the US, the proper reply isn’t a total estimate of your current status. A mere “good, thanks – how are you?” suffices. The reason isn’t just that the clerk at the postal office couldn’t care less about whether you are suffering from a toothache, but that “how are you?” is a greeting more than an actual question. One might even go as far as to claim that it is a rhetorical question, because the answer really is given. If you’re not feeling good, then you’re still expected to claim you are.
There is a fine line, though, between the greeting “how are you” and the question “how are you?” Because occasionally, it is a question. When you meet someone you haven’t seen in a while, someone you actually do care about, it is entirely possible to ask them the very same question and expect them to reply it with a sincere “I’m pretty well. My wife and I just had our second child and he is such a joy in our family.”
As you may have gathered from the above, we don’t employ “how are you?” as a greeting in Norway. That is, we didn’t use to. It’s catching on, though. You still won’t hear it from a total stranger. I don’t think you’ll find a lot of shops where you’re asked this upon entering. However, when you meet someone you know, or someone you know only a little, it’s becoming more and more common to start a conversation (or avoid one) with a simple “how are you?”
The problem is that it remains somewhat unclear what the proper answer should be. In many cases, like the one where you pass someone you barely know on the street and you’re both in a hurry, most people take the easy way out. “How are you?” “Good! You?” But then there are all the other instances, such as when someone you see every day or at least frequently asks this very question. You can say “good” and leave it at that, but they are probably expecting you to say a little something about your work life, or your love life or whatever aspect of your life it is they are interested in. These are the kind of people that might even be inclined to ask follow-up questions if you don’t give them a little something.
Personally, I think I prefer the US version. I don’t always feel like telling people how I really feel, mostly because these days (and by “these days” I mean ever since I started writing my thesis) how I feel fluctuates like a pendulum on crack. One moment I’m on top of the world because I feel that my thesis is the BOMB, while a few minutes later I realize that it was crap all along. The same thing goes for fiction writing – I can love my characters, find myself chuckling at the jokes, and secretly envision my name on every bestseller list in every country there is when the writing flows smoothly (or perhaps the writing flows smoothly because I feel good?). The second the creativity reaches a dead end, however, I hit rock bottom. This is when I question why I bother putting anything in writing at all.
So, I’ve had instances these last few months where people have asked me how I am, and I just didn’t know what to reply. Telling the truth (“Had you asked ten minutes ago, I would have said I was terrible. Ask me again in an hour, and I’ll give you a big smile and tell you I’m brilliant. Right now I have no idea.”) felt like oversharing. Thus I frequently opted for the short version: “I’m good – how are you?”
How are you?