A Question That Has Long Lost its Meaning

I don’t like being asked how I am, even by the people who know me well. The question annoys me because it is just a polite expression asked for the sake of order. People simply say, “How are you?” and continue walking or doing whatever they were doing before. They don’t wait for an answer.

Long ago, I believed that when people ask, they want to know and care to listen to how you are, and you will tell, for better or worse, the truth. But people don’t really want to know. Those who genuinely do want and care are “rarae aves” – rare birds, and they are my best friends.

I know that for an Englishman or American, “How are you?” isn’t a question but a form of ‘hello’ in passing. It’s just a ritual of asking for the quick lie – “I’m fine.” You are expected not to be honest, even if you are feeling sick, and the person asking is not prepared to listen to anything more than a clichéd response. It is an unwritten rule.

I’ve recently heard the story of a physician who conducted a small experiment at a large hospital where he worked on how much people listen and pay attention to what the other person is saying. As a respected physician whom many in the hospital knew, he walked through the hallways where passersby greeted him and asked, “How are you?”

He kept answering: “Great, I just killed my aunt!” 

People continued on their way as if he had said nothing. No one even looked back. The thirtieth person who asked the question stopped and said, “Sorry I didn’t hear you well.” Then again, no one reacted until the sixtieth passerby looked at him in astonishment, for he was the first who stopped and listened to the answer.

This experiment says it all about our ability to listen and show respect by listening to others. “How are you?” is one of the emptiest phrases we daily say. Those are just polite words with no real meaning.

We live in an alienated society. We have been meeting our neighbours for years, but we don’t know who they are or their names. We ride with them in the elevators face to face but stare at the floor and don’t say a word, even a seemingly unimportant question, “How are you?”

When asked, people mostly reply, “I’m fine,” even if they’re dying. One of my colleagues often answers, “I can’t complain,” although he is far from being well. A friend said to me that he always answers, “couldn’t be better,” because friends will be glad, and ‘enemies’ will burst with envy. Another friend has a different strategy. He never responds that he is OK or good. He believes it’s better for people to feel sorry for you rather than envy you. When I’m not in the mood, I sometimes answer, “Do you have an easier question?”

None of us tells the truth, even the short version, because people don’t care to listen.

Call me naive, but perhaps honestly asking “how are you?” could be one of the ways to deal with alienation. People living in the countryside still care about how others are. They stop and ask and are really interested in it! Social norms are different. People greet anyone who comes across by saying, “Good day, how are you?” Even if they pass a stranger, they will stop and ask. While we were travelling through the Dalmatian hinterland, it seemed perfectly natural to us to engage in conversations with local villagers who stopped and greeted us.

That kind of interaction is almost impossible in big cities. While I was writing this article, I also did a little experiment. As I passed them, I greeted several strangers on the street (although with a certain amount of discomfort). All I got was a suspicious glare and no reply. Only one person returned my greetings but asked if I might have mistaken him for someone else. It was one of those moments when you ask yourself, ‘What kind of world do we live in?”

It just occurred to me that even those who stick to the unwritten rule and usually answer, “fine, thanks” or “good,” break it when their doctor asks them how they are. Then they are expected to be completely honest. 

Social rules are not permanent, and sometimes you have to change them. Let’s stop asking, “How are you?” unless we are prepared to listen.


Lada Prkić
Lada Prkić
Lada Prkić is a Civil Engineer and has a lot of professional experience in various fields of Civil Engineering. She works at the University of Split on the capital construction projects at the University Campus and beyond. Besides performing responsible tasks as a Project Manager, and Head of Capital Investment Office, Lada became passionate about blogging. She writes about civil engineering, architecture, geometry, networks on social media, and human relations. Lada lives with her family in Split, Croatia, a beautiful 2,000 years old city on the coast of the Adriatic sea.

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  1. You punch right into one of the beauties of communication in foreign languages, Lada, because those to whom every word is a mystery (the foreigner), “how are you?” really is a question.

    I read a person complaining on LinkedIn, why foreigners didn’t just say “Fine” and move on, so I asked if the person had eaten? That obviously resulted in some puzzlement why I asked that. But I didn’t, I just translated a common greeting from a Chinese language and the answer is expected to be “yes.” Or “where are you going?” to which the answer is supposed to be “over there”.

    We really do confuse people with our form language – regardless which language we use for speaking “form”.

    You ask an even more pertinent question related to whether we are interested in one another – even those who live right next door. And in some way, you and me writing together here on www is both a blessing and a curse if we in our joy of relating to like-minded strangers forget to talk to or even see the person right in font of us in 3D.

    So now I will go talk with my mom ;-).

    • Charlotte, it may sound like a cliched response, but I love reading everything you write. I like how your mind works. 🙂 We think alike about many things, and I’m sorry for not having enough time to more engage in conversations with you. I met only a few people online who left such an impression on me.
      To me, “how are you?” is indeed a question, as well as different versions of the same question. The precursor of the English phrase was, “How do you do?” defined as a mere salutation. The English language is already confusing with its idioms and phrases. Perhaps a native English speaker would think the same about the Croatian language and its form. 🙂

      You pointed out one thing that is so common. People spend their time talking to strangers online, but at the same time, they never talk to their neighbours. And it’s not about introverts or shy people. It’s the curse of the digital age and is just not right or normal.
      So go and talk to your mom. 🙂 Nothing can beat a real conversation.