I see you –– but don’t ask me how I’m doing

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.

“What’s up?”

“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.

Related Information: Life After Cancer

Comments:

  1. Kellie Rowland

    Great article Adam. So true.

  2. nk

    Not sure if you read comments, but I just want to share that I too am a RCC patient and a physician (well a resident, but close enough). I found this article by accident as I am anxiously waiting for my follow-up scan results. Just want to thank you for all the tweets/articles you have written that have made me feel less alone in this thing. Sincerely.

  3. anita

    I agree with this article. Authentically connecting in the workplace is important for emotional well being. I feel that sometimes in North American (US and Canadian ) workplaces, being authentic is a sign of weakness or being negative and this is not the case. Everyone has those down days or days when we feel that things are not going well and it’s important to express it.
    I worked in another country at one time and was around many Europeans and conversation with them was refreshing. I remember having a conversation with one German colleague about a job offer she had accepted in haste. I gave her the customary “wow that’s great”! She then replied thoughtfully “hmm I don’t know if it’s great. And we went on to have an honest discussion about her situation of being in the proverbial “rock and a hard place” that I could relate to. After that honest discussion I didn’t feel so alone.

  4. Anne Enigma

    I’ve been chronically ill for a couple of decades so there’s few truly “fine” days, but life goes on. My standby answer to “How are you?” is “Hanging in there… you?” Most times it’s sufficient and I get the transactional, “I’m fine”. Every now and then someone replies with honest answer, and very rarely I’ll get the odd look of ‘Ya crazy? Just say “I’m fine” like a normal human’.

    At the very least I don’t feel like I’m lying. True, some days I could live without a novel length reply but it all evens out in the greater scheme

  5. Marilyn Morris

    Adam, I agree with you. I often don’t like the “ how are you” questions when it’s obvious the person doesn’t mean it and wouldn’t stop to listen. In many cases, I’ve learned not to take it literally. It’s just a greeting, but there’s also the fact that I often don’t want to say that I feel terrible or just came from an upsetting Dr appointment so I answer by saying “ ok, how are you?” Sometimes neither is true. I’m not ok and I may not want to know how they are if it’s a superficial contact. I think you’re right. Often best to just say hi or good morning.

  6. LyNelle

    This would be a good article to be posted on LinkedIn.

  7. Stephanie

    Phoniness in all forms is exhausting, but I think there is room to interpret some of this a linguistic phrasing, casual acknowledgement as a cultural greeting like “hello” or “good day”.
    It is incumbent upon us to build support networks and reach out for help, we cannot expect all the people we pass, all from different walks of life, to parse their words or anticipate what you feel is appropriate. I think (within reason) we have to consider intent. In times of need, friends often abandon us, and strangers present themselves.

    I think there are also people who are lonely and suffering and feel invisible when they encounter random people during the course of their day that don’t meet their eye, acknowledge their existence with a “how’s it going” and perhaps a smile. I’ve heard these mentioned numerous times from people with clinical depression.

    Let’s just all give each other the benefit of the doubt, try not to be overly literal, and be open to being more kind to people in need.

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