How are you, really?
The transfer of pleasantries as an injustice to human emotion
I had a comically bad day yesterday.
I won’t use this space to divulge all the details, but I will say the highlight was falling asleep in an art history lecture, only to be woken up with the professor standing over me, having stopped the class of 70 to publicly shame me for dozing in her class. To add insult to injury, I found out the kid next to me had been taking pictures of my mouth and drool-covered chin the whole time. Yes, it was that bad.
Throughout the day, I ran into countless people I knew. Everyone said some variation of “Hey, how are you?” It wasn’t until after I talked to a hallmate in the bathroom that I realized just how absurd my answer to their questions had been.
How was I, really? I was overwhelmed. I was on hold with U.S. Airways for an hour and 42 minutes trying to reschedule a cancelled flight. I hadn’t slept in 37 hours. And I’m pretty sure my cheeks were still red from my art history horror story. Yet every time I responded with an overly chirpy, “good!”
If “good” meant, “please help me and solve all my life problems while I sleep my headache away,” then maybe I was more than good. I was an emphatic “great.”
After I left the bathroom, I sat on my bed and felt disgusted for saying “good” as Tchaikovsky played scratchily from my phone speakers — U.S. Airways’ hold music is almost exclusively Russian. It was like the whole weight of the injustice to human emotion that is the transfer of pleasantries came crashing down on me and I wanted to run back out in the hall and scream, “SCREW YOU, U.S. AIRWAYS. I AM NOT OKAY TODAY.” But instead I let the “good” settle into the space between my hallmate and I, allowing it to be the wedge of polities that defines the world of acquaintances.
As I thought about our society’s ingrained desire to always be OK — manifested in the omnipresent “good” that prefaces the majority of superficial and shallow social interaction — I decided I would make a conscious effort to let myself be less than OK when I just wasn’t. I also decided I would make a concerted effort to punctuate my inquiries of how a person is with an aura of genuine sincerity and a tone demanding they answer my question as I had asked it, with emphasis. How are you, really?
Just then the call operator ended the incessantly annoying waiting music and answered with an exasperated sigh, “U.S. Airways, Sandra speaking.”
Sandra would be my first target in the quest to end dishonest small talk.
“Hi Sandra, how are you today?”
Sandra and I talked about how stressed she was because this storm had cancelled every flight on the eastern seaboard, causing people to yell at her as if she had somehow caused the snow to fall and kicked their dog simultaneously, and how ready she was to be off work at 6 p.m. I hung up feeling better about my day, and I think she did too.
If we all answer the daily barrage of how-are-yous with something just slightly more reflective of how we actually are, then perhaps the days when kids sitting next to you acquire high-resolution images of your drool won’t be so bad.
Lauren’s column runs biweekly Fridays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.