On the worst day of my life, I noticed how many times an hour Americans ask some version of “how’s it going?” without actually wanting to know the answer. It happens when we pass each other in the halls at work, at the park, in line at Starbucks. We ask when making small talk before getting down to business.
It even happens when we are waiting for the test results that reveal we have cancer.
How’s it going?
On January 19, 2018, I parried that question five or six times before one of my best friends at the office asked it. It felt like I would be lying to not answer.
“This week, man—”
But I had to stop. How do you tell someone in the hallway outside the cafeteria that you are waiting on imaging results to confirm a suspected cancer diagnosis?
“Uh oh. What is it?” he asked.
With tears already beginning to gather in my eyes, I asked him to find me in my office later. There I eventually told him how I was actually doing.
Stopping to listen
Over the last year, I’ve had lots of good days and bad days, but the typical American casual interaction has bothered me on every single one. I’ve noticed that when we ask, “How’s it going?” “What’s up?” or “How are you?” in passing, we almost never truly want to know the answer. It’s just a stand-in for “I see you.” Often, we don’t even stop walking to hear the answer.
So one day, I tried an experiment. I started answering a different question than the one asked.
“Good, you?” I said enthusiastically.
There wasn’t even a reaction. This is how detached the hallway encounter has become, I thought.
Then I toyed with answering the question genuinely.
“How are you?”
“Anxious,” I said. “Scans next week. I feel like my mind can’t stop racing through all of the possible results.”
When I responded genuinely, it felt like the whole world stopped as the receiving parties tried to figure out just how to engage casually with such heavy topics.
So, how are you doing?
I think Americans should adopt alternative approaches that have already taken hold in some cultures. In Germany, for example, those you’re close to may say “wie geht’s?” While this translates to “How’s it going?” it’s never used in casual conversation, because it would be an insult to ask and not care about the answer. Instead, you might reserve it for times when you are catching up with an old friend.
In Russian culture, it is not the question that differs, but the response, as a New York Times op-ed notes. Answers of “fine” and “not bad, you?” are completely tone-deaf. There is a world-weary honesty in their typical interactive style that Americans lack. But as a student of the human condition, I think we would find it incredibly refreshing if we tried it.
What I suggest is that we need to change. Next time you see someone and feel the need to acknowledge them, say something like “It’s nice to see you.” If it’s not actually nice to see the person, say something like, “There you are,” or a simple “Hello there.”
Doing this even when someone prompts you with “How’s it going?” might begin to move our culture in a better, more authentic direction. After trying it out, I have found that it’s perfectly functional. More importantly, it prevents me — and you, and perhaps all of us — from dismissing those around us through false and hollow caring.
Americans are tired of fakeness. We’re exhausted by phony empathy. Let’s start being real, even at our most superficial levels of discourse. I think we’ll find ourselves feeling a little more content each day for it.