Some family “-isms” are humorous, like the pooping tigers example; some are sweet, like songs at bedtime; some stick around for years, others weeks or even just days. Some of them seem to defy categorization. These are the ones that I come back to again and again. They mean one thing today, something different yesterday, and can mean anything tomorrow.
That was my then-two-year-old daughter’s response when asked by anyone how she was doing.
“How are you, Ella?”
Ella’s response usually garnered a chuckle and that was the end of that line of questioning. More and more, I would find myself ruminating on that response.
I don’t venture that Ella’s response came from some innate two-year-old knowing that I’m no longer privy to. And yet, there is something so profound about it. For one thing, it’s always accurate. But it’s the fact that it means anything and everything and nothing all at once that kept it circling inside my head.
It gets me thinking about the question: “How are you?”
What are we really saying when we ask that question? Do we want the other person to answer the question honestly?
When we ask the 42-weeks-pregnant woman, “How are you feeling?” do we want her to say, “I’m uncomfortable physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m pissed off because my friend who was due with her baby 10 days after me had her baby last week. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, and each day pregnant feels like a year.”
When we ask the friend who recently lost her mother, “How are you doing?” do we want her to say, “I’m scared and lonely at the thought of living the rest of my life without my mom. My kids will grow up without their grandmother and I’m so angry about that. I’m relieved that I no longer have to help her care for herself and I feel guilty for feeling relieved.”
What about when we ask the barista who serves us our coffee? Do we really want to hear about his sick child, her financial struggles, his upcoming wedding? When did such a loaded question become a meaningless formality?
There is value in being thoughtful and authentic with our words. Instead of automatically greeting someone with “How are you?” first we can ask ourselves what we hope to accomplish from the exchange. If informal niceties are what we are seeking, we can choose to ask some other question that fits the “informal nicety” category we are seeking. Perhaps, “Are you enjoying the sunshine?” “Do you have anything fun planned for the weekend?” Any question that invites the other person to answer authentically. If we choose the “How are you?” standby in the context of merely being polite, we can still be authentic when we are mindful and purposeful with the intent we are putting behind it.
What about when someone asks us, “How are you?” Are we forthcoming with our answer? Or do we robot back a “good,” or “fine, thanks”? Do we want to tell the person asking the question what is going on in our lives or do we want to keep it a meaningless formality?
Maybe we don’t want to share what’s inside our heads and our hearts in that moment.
“How are you?”
It means as much or as little as we choose. It is both all-encompassing and self-limiting. Like us.