I became an expert in short conversations when I started working the cash register at Rand. When I tally up the entrée and sides on a student’s tray, our conversation usually goes something like this:
Me: Hi, how are you?
Student: Good, and you?
Me: Not bad, thanks. Meal plan?
Student: Yep, thanks.
Me: Have a good night.
This depth of conversation is appropriate when paying for food. However, after having dozens of these mini-conversations, they became ingrained in my head; I started noticing them in other places, too. We talk like this when we pass friends on the sidewalk, when we come back to our roommates after a long day, or when we sit down next to classmates in lecture.
The phrase that usually drives the brief conversation is “How are you?” It has become such a standard greeting that we hardly regard it as a question anymore. After all, we certainly don’t lose sleep over how to answer. A simple “Good” or “Doing fine, thanks” is the societally approved and practiced answer. If we’re feeling especially blunt, we might venture a “Tired,” but rarely anything more. “After all,” we tell ourselves, “no stranger or acquaintance wants to hear about my real problems.” As for our friends—we’ll catch them up on our real lives later, when we have more time to talk.
“How are you?” is a question fraught with difficulties. On the one hand, pretending like our lives are fine and dandy all the time forces us to bottle up our emotions. On the other hand, we don’t have time to expound our complicated emotions to every person who asks. There is, however, a middle ground between these two extremes: telling a piece of the truth. This is honesty that we can put into practice with strangers and acquaintances even in brief encounters. The results are often rewarding.
“How are you?”
“Not so good—I just got back my orgo test from last week.”
“How are you?”
“Um, I only got 2 hours of sleep last night, so I really need a nap right now.”
And the answer doesn’t have to be negative. “How are you?” I asked automatically, as the next student came through the Rand line to pay. “I just submitted an application to law school!” he said, clearly thrilled.
It’s unusual to walk away from a small exchange like this with a new best friend—after all, the cashier at Rand sees hundreds of faces each day; our classmates have a lot to worry about and won’t remember exactly what we said. But this sincerity allows us to be honest with ourselves and increases our empathy towards others.
There’s an invisible, but very real, barrier between two people, especially strangers. Answering “How are you?” realistically, even if we can only fit a bit of our experience into words, portrays us as the imperfect humans that we are. It opens up space for the other person to share a part of their life, too.
And sometimes, when it’s all we can muster, a short honest answer will do just as well. Every time I walk into work at Rand, I say hello to one of the chefs and ask “How’s it going?” He always answers, “Well, it’s going.” Some days, when life doesn’t feel particularly up or down, “It’s going” is the only truthful thing we can find to say. But it’s still worth saying.