An upcoming doctor’s appointment had me wondering how I was going to answer the Dreaded Question of “How are you?” A response of “Fine, thanks, how are you?” was probably not going to be sufficient. But does the man really want to hear a recitation of my minor aches and pains and unfounded concerns about how my heart and lungs are doing?
“I was afraid you were going to ask that,” I said, “I just don’t know the answer.” And for that visit we settled on addressing the issue of some painful arthritis in my knee.
How often do we scuffle over the truth when asked how we are? Most people really don’t want to hear a synopsis of your ills and your disappointments in life. So we lie and say “Fine.” However the question takes on a little different perspective when addressed to a person known to be struggling. Then the response can be more nuanced and truthful. Among elderly people in particular, one may expect a more truthful reply, because it is generally recognized that old age can be filled with issues of health.
The type and length of an encounter also play a part in how to deal with the ritual “How are you?” If the encounter is to be short, the answer “Fine” is O.K. But if you are settling in for some good conversation over lunch, it might be more appropriate to go into detail.
In the back of my mind I recall Mark Twain’s essay, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying.” In it he points out the many little lies and hypocrisies that underlie proper social behavior and concludes that “No fact is more firmly established than that lying is a necessity of our circumstances, – the deduction that it is then a Virtue goes without saying.”
And as for that Dreaded Question, Twain writes, “The men in that far country were liars, every one. Their mere howdy-do was a lie, because they didn’t care how you did, except they were undertakers. To the ordinary inquirer you lied in return; for you made no conscientious diagnosis of your case, but answered at random, and usually missed it considerably. You lied to the undertaker, and said your health was failing — a wholly commendable lie, since it cost you nothing and pleased the other man.”
Nowadays we can fall back on the internet to address almost any problem. If you Google the question of how to answer “How are you,” you will find lots of creative approaches. My favorite was “I’m trying really hard to avoid ambiguous questions at the moment.”