Recently, I was at a birthday party when I spotted a casual acquaintance, a woman I had met once or twice before. We wandered toward each other and exchanged polite hugs.
"Hi!" she said.
"Hello," I said.
"How are you?" she asked.
"I'm good," I replied.
I was lying. I had just finished moving, right around the same time I was switching jobs, so I was basically on the precipice of a nervous breakdown. Additionally, I'd had a violent, teeth-gnashing argument with my significant other about the lyrics to Todd Rundgren's "Bang the Drum All Day." "It's 'work, no work,' not 'I don't wanna work,'" I'd sobbed, mascara running like a beauty pageant queen, before slamming the door. I was not doing well.
"How are you?" I asked.
"Fine, thanks," she said.
She was lying. As she told me later that evening, she was slammed at work because her boss quit, and her grandmother had just passed away. She was barely holding it together — and now her day was about to get worse because she had to deal with talking to me.
We glowered at each other, silently sipping our drinks. We had lied to each other's faces. She wasn't doing well. I wasn't doing well. And what's more, neither of us cared.
I knew there had to be a better way.
The three simple words it's time to ban: For the past month or so, I have issued a personal moratorium on saying "how are you?" unless it is a life-or-death social situation (e.g. a job interview or meeting a significant other's parents), or I 100% care about the answer (e.g. if I'm seeing an old friend, or if I'm trying to get confirmation of an office hookup from a colleague in like, a cute, sneaky way.)
My "how are you?" ban has little to do with a curmudgeonly aversion to social niceties, although that's a small part of it. (Much like Larry David, I'm also opposed to singing "Happy Birthday" — not for philosophical reasons, but mostly because it's a dumb song that sucks dick.) It has more to do with the fact that "how are you?" has lost all meaning.
We open the majority of our conversations with it, inquiring into our respondent's emotional states as reflexively as a burp or a hiccup, and yet we don't actually care about the answer.
"How are you?" is a deep question, packaged as an empty one: Because humans are essentially social creatures, "how are you?" exists in most languages, albeit in various forms. In Yiddish, it's "vi geyt es?" which translates into "What's going?" In parts of West Africa, it's "Dyula?" which translates into "Did you sleep in peace?" Same in Israel, where "Ma shlomcha" shares a root with "shalom," the Hebrew word for "peace."
These versions of "how are you?" are tailored to either the respondent or the culture from whence they came. (If a culture's version of "how are you?" has something to do with peace — as is the case with Mauritania, the site of various border conflicts — it might be an indication that at some point in history, the answer to "how are you" was "not good".)
But in the United States, "how are you?" is possibly the most generic thing you can ask a person. It isn't tailored to the respondent or the context of your meeting at all. It's like giving someone you've run into on the street a DMV questionnaire and flipping them off instead of actually saying hi to them.
By contrast, other variations of "how are you?" are more personalized and allow for some context, not to mention real answers. The aggressively chill "What's up?" and more easygoing "how's it going" ask about the details of what is actually happening in your life and leave space for real answers. If they were Beatles songs, they'd be written by John and Ringo.
On the other hand, "How are you?" is a Paul joint, sweet and uncomplicated, packaged for mainstream appeal yet ultimately meaningless. Or, when you consider its literal meaning — how are you, at this moment, but also as a person living in the world? — it's a George tune: deep and existential, so complicated that you can't possibly be expected to answer it.
A request you can't possibly answer: Given that its massive, unanswerable nature is baked right into the question, "how are you?" can feel like a trap, in which you're not allowed to answer anything other than "good."
Because even if you want to tell people the truth, you can't. No one wants an honest answer for "how are you?" It's far better to lie than breach the unspoken social contract of casual encounters by telling the truth about your mental state, thereby attracting the eyerolls and awkward silences that usually follow raw displays of emotional honesty.
I learned this firsthand about three or four years ago, while I was gamely plodding through one of the worst periods of depression of my life. I was going through a bad breakup, I had a job that consisted of me alternating doing crossword puzzles with looking at Facebook and weeping and my Scotch-to-food consumption ratio was approximately 15,000 to 1.
At night, I'd go to the one bar on campus, and because it was a small town I'd be approached by six or seven people I knew, all of whom would embrace me and warmly inquire "How are you?" Every "how are you?" was like a dagger, because I wanted to tell them the answer: "I am not OK." That's all you want, when you're depressed: the universe to acknowledge you are there and you are hurting. You don't even want a solution. You just want an acknowledgement of the problem.
But I never said that. I said I was OK, and we'd laugh and talk shit and do shots, and then the next day I'd be angry and hungover and the cycle would begin anew.
It took me a long time to get to the point where I could honestly answer with an "I'm doing OK." It took me an even longer time to realize that I wasn't a Paul. If someone asked me a question, I couldn't churn out something perfect and pleasant and hollow. I was a John. I was a little off-putting. I was acerbic. And I said and felt a lot of things that people didn't want to hear.
That is the seductive appeal of a rhetorical question, which "how are you?" undoubtedly is: It has one answer, regardless of whether it's right, or whether it's the one the respondent wants to give. It gives the power to the asker, as they know what they're going to get back.
But it doesn't have to be that way. The next time someone asks how you are, consider the possibility that you don't have to answer falsely. Tell them how you're actually doing, even if it's awkward ("actually, I'm not doing great, my partner just left me") or gross ("I'm fine but I kinda have to poop"), or sad ("Thank you for asking me that question. No one has asked me that question in a while").
And if you want to ask how someone else is doing, try asking how their day is going, how their significant other is, if their dog has gotten over his case of worms, how they're liking that new job. Ask something that is specifically tailored to them, and/or your relationship with them. Acknowledge their place in the universe; ask the question as if you genuinely want to know the answer, because you do.