Friday, June 11, 2010

On how we are

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?


Ted Cross said...

How are you?;)

Cruella Collett said...

Heh - I failed to answer that one, didn't I... I'm good, Ted, how are you?

Rayna M. Iyer said...

I'm good. And how are you?

Sometimes, when I am asked what I know is a purely rhetorical question, I do end up going into great details with the answer. Just to show them!!!

Falen said...

ooh i loved this post! I always find it so fascinating to be examined by someone not of your culture. Even with people who are americans, yet not Minnesotan, i love to hear them point out idiosyncracies they notice that we take for granted or don't even notice.

Leanne said...

I mess with people's heads all the time by actually answering this question, usually with a variation on the theme of "tired". :-P Serves 'em right. ;-)

Clarissa Draper said...

Fine. Why do you ask so many questions? What are you up to? :)

Very interesting post. I love learning about cultural differences.


Dangerous With a Pen said...

Interesting... I'm American born and raised, and I still don't always know whether the person asking actually wants to know, or whether I should just give the customary response. This happens a lot at work - I teach elementary school, and therefore most of my colleagues are kind, caring people who really probably want to know how each other are doing, but also know that the other person only has a 40 minute prep period in the day to make copies, answer parent emails, check in with support teachers about students, mark papers, check our office mailboxes, put things into student mailboxes... so although we probably do actually want to know, we are usually asking while flying past one another in the hallway! :)

Cruella Collett said...

Natasha - yes, I can relate to that. Though then I feel guilty for not having paid enough attention to how THEY are. Social interaction can be a mess!

Falen - thank you :) (And big thumbs up for Minnesota - I visited relatives there in October, and it must be the friendliest place I have ever been! I have a number of Minnesotan friends and/or relatives.)
I quite like observing cultural differences. I have had the great fortune to spend some time abroad, and every time I am struck with how much you learn from getting to know another culture. Definitely something I'd like to do again.
By the way, if you like that perspective you might want to check out some of my October 2009 posts (some of them even about Minnesota).

Leanne - none of their business anyway, right?

Clarissa - I guess as someone who frequently puts herself inside the head of criminals and code breakers you must be aware of the potential problem such a question poses, ne?

DWaP - that is a fair point. Sometimes people want to know, but neither party has the time to catch up properly. In which case even a briefly answered "how are you?" is better than nothing.

Thanks everyone for such lovely comments :)

Southpaw said...

Not bad. You?

I think I like the way it's done in Norway by which I mean they don't ask.

Cruella Collett said...

Southpaw - curse this globalization teaching us withdrawn Norwegians the ways of the civilized world, where people ask questions to show their concern for others as opposed to just pat them on the shoulder when they haul the monster cod into the boat!!!
But yeah, I'm with you ;)

Vatche said...

I usually greet people, who are my friends, with a handshake that pulls them in close to me so that I could hug them. Then, I ask, "How are ya, man (or *Insert Name Here*)?" Since, I'm a really friendly guy.

And if they ask me about how I am, I usually tell them the last thing I did and whether I enjoyed it or not, which leads to further conversation.

I used to be a very introverted person, but I've changed my habits over time and have become...well, the exact opposite.

Anyway, enough of my rambling, really interesting post, and as far as I can see, I am healthy and living life. Thank you for asking. :D

I would ask you how you were doing, but you've seemed to answer that question already. :)

Write on!

Cruella Collett said...

Glad to hear that, Vatche! And the intro-/extroverted thing is interesting to me - I keep thinking I am introverted (you know, in person, not here. Who am I kidding, right?), but then people keep telling me I am extroverted. So I guess sometimes "how we are" depends on the eye that sees as well.

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