How Are You, Really?

My husband passed a coworker in the hall the other day and said, “How are you?”

The man responded, “Fantastic.”

My husband said, “Wow, that’s great.”

The man said, “When someone asks you how you are, always say fantastic. No one wants to hear about your problems.”

This strikes me as sad. I agree with him there’s a time and place to talk about our troubles. For example, if the clerk at the grocery store asks how you are, he probably doesn’t want to hear a long story about your costly car repairs. But if a coworker is munching on a doughnut in the break room and asks how you’re doing, is it really so wrong to tell her your favorite uncle passed away last night?

In these ultra-busy times, we’re all so afraid of encroaching on other people’s time and energy. When we get bad news, we’re not even sure we can call a friend or family member. They’ve got their own things to deal with. But if you can’t share your troubles, how can you ever hope for support or guidance or just a much-needed hug?

Every now and then, someone will ask me what’s the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur. Depending on the day, I might talk about the challenges of not having a set income by which to budget, or the difficulties of finding people who can help me with certain tasks, or the roller-coaster nature of e-mail when one piece of good news is followed by a piece of bad news. But I always appreciate the question. Why? Because it invites me to talk for a bit about my challenges.

I’m trying to be more conscious lately of not asking the question “How are you?” unless I’m willing to follow it up by saying, “No, really, how are you?” I confess I don’t always have the time or energy to ask (I’m busy too), but I don’t want to lose my humanity. And sometimes I probe a little deeper, if I think the other person is receptive. It’s amazing how people light up when you ask them a thoughtful question about something they care passionately about, or how grateful they look when you follow up on something that was causing them pain.

Again, the timing has to be right. Sometimes answering, “I’m fine, thanks for asking,” is good enough for everyone. Other times, a better connection could be made just by showing a little more interest.

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