Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I'm am fine, and how are you?

The obligatory exchange of

"How are you?"
"Fine, how are you?"

makes me completely insane.  The fact that so often my entire exchange with people I deal with is encompassed by these few words that pretty much boil down to obligation and lying makes my head hurt.  Imagine how I would answer this question if I had just suffered a personal tragedy yesterday like losing my job or having someone close to me die - I would say "Fine".  Then imagine how I would answer if I spent the previous night winning huge amounts of money off rubes while playing poker - I would say "Fine".  There are people in my life who I wish to discuss these things with but they rarely have to ask "How are you?" because they actually have some idea of who I am and can ask something topical!  They could inquire how my blog is going, what games I am playing these days or what grade Elli is in, for example.  Almost universally when someone resorts to "How are you?" it is an admission that they don't know anything about me and almost certainly don't want any information beyond "Fine".

Handshakes are the same.  The theory as I understand it is that a long time ago shaking hands showed that you didn't have a weapon in that hand and thus is was a gesture of mutual trust.  Whether or not that is true it certainly isn't relevant now and today handshakes are just a great way to pass on germs and annoy me.  There are plenty more examples that are the same way of course as my family in law demonstrates at most gatherings.  They have the hilarious unspoken tradition that when someone is leaving the gathering everybody crowds to the front door of the house for goodbye handshakes and hugs.  Of course because there is a mob of people trying to exist directly beside the door it takes 20 minutes for the folks leaving to just put on shoes and go while I stand there trying desperately not to order them all into the spacious living room where goodbyes could take place without causing an incredible traffic jam of people.

Ziggyny commented awhile ago that he absolutely hates mandatory gift giving.  I happen to agree but I think I take it a little further than that because I hate obligatory social rituals.  If I am seeing a good friend after a long time apart and I give them a hug (or a much more manly chest bump) it is an honest representation of my feelings and has some meaning.  The clerk at the grocery store saying "How are you?" on the other hand is the most absurd kind of timewasting ritual - it isn't like I am suddenly fooled into thinking they want an answer.  "How are you?" and the mandatory responses to it are just a way to fill space when no one has anything to say and somebody lacks the fortitude to remain silent.  I assume that these things do in fact nicely grease the wheels of social interaction and that for many people they are innocuous or even enjoyable but all I want is either meaningful interaction or simple silence.

How did I ever get into sales as a career anyway?


  1. Among friends "How are you?" allows them to answer "Awesome" or "Terrible" if there is something big that they want to talk about. Using your example of winning huge amounts off rubes at poker:
    Friend: Sky, how is your blog going?
    Sky: Blog schmog, let me tell you about rubes I was schooling in the fine art of poker...

    Friend: How are you?
    Sky: Awesome!
    Friend: What makes you so happy today?
    Sky: Well, some rubes just were giving me their money last night...

    By asking "How are you?" it gives you the option to direct the conversation if you want. I feel that has some value. Though with store clerks and colleagues at work; it is really just mimicking the friendship protocol because people try to pretend everyone is friends (Which is annoying).

  2. Quite right. I always relish an opportunity to tell people about the rubes I was cleaning out at poker.

    The annoying part about "How are you?" is definitely when it comes from someone who doesn't care and has no interest in an answer. Sometimes it comes from someone who is actually interested in the real answer and that isn't a bother.

  3. I strongly disagree here. Social norms provide clues that people are reasonable and trustworthy. It also gives you indicators that you can expect social norms from them.

    Someone who doesn't follow social rituals is more likely to be estranged from society and is a higher risk to cause harm to the society.

    I actually rarely answer "fine" unless there really isn't much in my life that I would be willing to share. If you do answer "fine" is it in situations where you particularly don't care about the person, or do you answer in a similar fashion with everyone? And how much of it is because of your own self-separation with society in general?

  4. I'm ok. That's my answer to everyone in practically every situation.

    Yes, I'm probably actually a psychopath and we're all just waiting for the day when my stresser hits and I go on a killing spree. Anyone have any good ideas for taking out people who smoke at bus stops?

  5. i think i agree with one of the above posts. it provides cues to the other person about your willingness to participate in deeper conversation. If I go through the whole "how are you. fine. how are you. fine" conversation with someone I am assuming that neither of us really wants to go much deeper. If I want to engage with someone I don't answer 'fine'. I tell them something real about my life. "how are you. great! I just got back from vacation" etc. If I don't get anything real from them I would need some pretty substantial cues from them to try and go deeper into conversation. In fact, I use it to cut people off too. If I really don't want to engage with someone (ie: a patient in a non medical setting or a very distant acquaintance I don't feel up to 'catching up with') I don't even do the second half and ask 'how are you' back to them. It goes "how are you. fine ... thanks for asking" and I leave the situation. Perhaps it's our way of protecting our space?
    thanks for the good thought provoking blog!

  6. I don't have problems with people who are friends and use "How are you?" as an opening line in a conversation as long as they actually have an interest in the answer. What drives me nuts is rituals that are 'necessary' that have no purpose. Cashiers don't care how I am and don't want me to tell them. Thus it drives me crazy to take part in the mutual exchange of questions that nobody wants to hear the honest answer to.

    If someone I know asks how I am I would generally give an honest answer unless for some reason I wanted to avoid that discussion in particular. That isn't often the case but it does happen. "Fine" is the answer reserved for people who don't want the information in the first place.

    I don't place a lot of value on maintaining rituals just to try to figure out who is the sort of person who isn't willing to follow rules that have no intrinsic benefit. I also don't buy that you can actually tell who is a danger to society effectively by looking at who violates basic social rituals.

  7. The post tags for any recovered posts in the Blogger crash broke. You need to re-enter them if you want the post properly tagged, and also to get rid of the gobbledegook that got entered in their place.

  8. You dismiss social cues because you don't see or care for them... but you're wrong. It's not simply a matter of "going nuts and killing millions of people". When you are depressed or otherwise preoccupied, you will downplay social interactions and is often the only clue for suicidal people.

    Cashiers who give a very bored "how are you" really do serve no purpose, but I've struck up a number of conversations with cashiers who do sound interested. Sure they might forget it after the next few customers... but really, if you aren't interested in other people's lives, why read/watch the news?

    I don't buy that life is all about what happens to me... I want to know what my cashier's aspirations are and so cashiers that do sound bored are down in my books.

  9. When did I ever suggest that this is a matter of "going nuts and killing millions of people"? Of course social rituals can potentially be used to diagnose mental illness but only usefully so by someone *who knows and is interested in the person in question*. If I know the person in question then my answers to "How are you?" will be meaningful and the whole exchange won't be entirely pointless.

    I don't watch the news, but whether or not you do watch the news I question whether it is a useful way of learning about other people's lives.

    I don't buy that life is all about what happens to me either. However, if you think that you are going to get real, visceral data about your cashier's hopes and dreams by asking "How are you?" I think you are mistaken. It is exceedingly uncommon for these exchanges to go anywhere beyond the most banal of pleasantries.