OHS Canada Magazine

‘How are you?’: Is it time for greater authenticity in how we ask and answer this question?


May 24, 2022
By The Conversation

Health & Safety Mental Health workplace health and wellness

By Marnie Wedlake, Assistant Professor of Mental Health & Wellness; Registered Psychotherapist, Western University; Jennifer Irwin, Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Western University, and Shauna Burke, Associate professor, School of Health Studies, Western University

As the effects of the pandemic and other global crises stack up, leaving many feeling beleaguered and emotionally worn, our usually polite answers to the question, ”How are you?” are being challenged.

Responding with, ”Fine thanks, and you?” can feel inadequate, inappropriate and sometimes even unmanageable. Perhaps what we’ve actually been communicating through this interaction is, ”I acknowledge your existence.”

As many of us continue to experience limited social interactions due to the pandemic, those we do have might hold heightened importance. So we find ourselves asking whether there is room for greater authenticity in how we negotiate this established social grace. Can we respond in ways that extend beyond a mere greeting, in a manner that is both authentic and polite?

Canadian politeness: fact or fiction?

The ”nice, polite Canadian” is an internationally recognized identity, that in reality is likely something of a myth. Fictitious or not, polite exchange is still valued and abundantly common.

When we connect with others, at work and in our personal lives, many of us start by asking, ”How are you?” Within this longstanding and widely accepted part of Canadian social discourse is another truism: we don’t necessarily expect to give or receive honest answers to this question.

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In fact, it’s safe to say that quite often, there’s an unspoken expectation that discourages honest replies. In those situations when the customary answer, ”Fine thanks,” is replaced by a lengthier, less positive response, a palpable awkwardness can be instantaneous.

Responding with ”Fine thanks, and you?” keeps things tidy. It doesn’t ask the receiver to bare emotional burdens, and it keeps private the more intimate thoughts and feelings attached to personal struggles. Feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy, that are usually greater in times of personal struggle, can also cause us to worry that we might be judged if we respond honestly.

And, in those times when it takes all we have to keep ourselves from falling apart, we might fear that being asked, ”How are you?” could tip us into unravelling.

So, we tend to play it safe. But is this superficial social relational dance really about being polite? Or, are there other reasons that might explain why we tend to avoid getting too personal when we greet each other? Could there be something in the communal psyche that discourages us from sharing our truths?

Seeing oneself as a bother

Many worry that telling someone honestly how they’re doing might be received as a bother, and asking someone how they’re really doing might be construed as an intrusion.

But these well-honed efforts are often intended to prevent internal discomfort that might be felt, and potential discomfort that might result, when these widely regarded social-relational boundaries are overstepped.

On the one hand, it can be argued that telling someone how we are really doing is equal to asking them to ”hold our stuff.” However, we also know that sharing intimate thoughts and feelings is a core feature of psychotherapy, and that telling our stories to enable physical and emotional healing is foundational to narrative medicine.

As the saying goes, ”a problem shared is a problem halved.” The value of releasing pent-up feelings as a means of unburdening has a lengthy history. The notion of catharsis – emotional release following the expression of repressed emotions – dates back to the time of Plato and his pupil, Aristotle, when it was felt that a purging following dramatic arousal of emotion had therapeutic value.

Not surprisingly, the desire to self-disclose is often stronger during times when emotional burdens feel heaviest, creating a more intense need for the feeling of release that comes with unburdening.

In addition, the need to belong is a fundamental human desire, and sharing our feelings with others can enhance our sense of connectedness. The critical nature of this to overall well-being has been further highlighted by the pandemic.

Is it time for greater authenticity?

Just as important as it is to consider our responses to the age-old question, ”How are you?” (or more accurately, ”How do you do?”), is introspection about why and how we ask it.

If we simply intend ”How are you?” to serve as a greeting or a sort of social lubricant, perhaps we don’t expect or want an authentic response. If, however, we are intent on delving beyond this formality, toward connection and meaning in our interactions with others, perhaps there are ways we can ask this question that are more meaningful, genuine and compassionate.

In this sixth wave of the pandemic, emotional weariness is becoming increasingly evident, and is being compounded by numerous other global calamities. There’s a lot to take in, while so much about how we interact with each other has changed.

As we consider how our growing collective emotional fatigue might be impacting our usually polite rules of social engagement, we can’t help but ask if our longstanding allegiance to polite greeting is being confronted by a pandemic inspired thirst for greater authenticity. Is it time for us to overhaul this longstanding symbol of social grace?

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