Why asking “how are you?” has become a problem

In last few days I’ve asked the question “how are you?” to two people I care about immensely, who’ve been frankly horrified I’ve had the audacity to ask. Just to clarify I didn’t just say it to just two people but if anyone else was offended they kept it covered under their stiff upper, very British top lip.

My first reaction was genuine and heartfelt apology – my words seemed out of touch perhaps to their situation and both being in incredibly difficult, earth-shattering moments of a loss of self, I hated myself for adding to theirpain.

My second reaction was like errrr ok, I mean I’m not a stranger so clearly I do actually care about you and how you are. And third… where I am now around these words, I need to do better. We all do.

What does “how are you!” really mean?

A seemingly innocuous question perhaps to you, to me, to others, most of the time – but if we really drill it down, it probably means absolutely nothing to all of us. And so for me now, at 4.00am in the morning (6.00am now I’ve finished writing!)- I’m lying here with my cat firmly strapped to my chest (she’s still here!) wondering – how the F did asking someone how they are become so distasteful?

How are you? … Do you mean it? Do I mean it?

The question how are you literally means – I would like to know how you are. Obvious huh?! Except now days… does it really? Because I mean, I ask everyone that – it’s become a normality alongside “hey, hello, how’s it going? How’s things? What you been up to?” But do we really mean what we’re asking?

The problem as I see it is three-fold when asking this question or being asked it.

1. Do you actually care when asking this question?

2. Do you actually want to give a real response when being asked by this person?

3. What’s next? Oh wait… was that it?

There was a study done by Harvard researchers where they analysed more than 300 online conversations and they basically worked out that for those people who followed up with other questions after “how are you?”- they had more engagement in their conversation.

“When people are instructed to ask more questions, they are perceived as higher in responsiveness, an interpersonal construct that captures listening, understanding, validation and care,”

It’s your responsibility…

I see my mistake now with like glaring clarity, mainly because I was called out on my question today. As I mentioned I had a oh fuck moment, then a well fuck I’m kinda offended moment and now a moment of wanting to understand how to do better.

Because (a guy I met a few years ago on a course said this to me and honestly it’s the best thing ever) “it may not be your fault but it’s your responsibility”. Totally.

It’s our responsibility to not meet feedback with instant back up to the wall insecurity, it’s our responsibility to communicate with people in a way that is doing the absolute best for both of us and what I really feel is that it’s our responsibility to be living a life of the utmost authenticity to ourselves and others and if “how are you?” Is triggering and inadequate, then we need to change the narrative.

How do we change the narrative?

1. Think about who you are engaging with

Not everyone deserves your full-attention and the fullness of your time. Remember that – have they earned it? do you want to give it? do you think that it’s going to be beneficial to you or to them? Do you have a mutual relationship of service to one another?

Because when you engage with anyone, you are giving away your energy, your time, your thoughts and your space – so be careful about that. You don’t need to find out how someone is if you don’t want to know.

(I’m just going to say it before anyone gets on their high-horse about this one. Not.everyone.deserves.your.time – I know you maybe think this is too much but it’s the damn truth. You are a soul, dressed up for this life and you have a purpose here, don’t get side-lined by energy vampires who take take take – be vigilant.)

2. If you don’t care, don’t ask

Seriously. Just don’t ask. It’s kinda interesting being around people who exist in their heads more than the real-world. They hardly ever ask you anything about you. It’s bloody irritating in reality or kinda offensive after a while but actually it’s kinda refreshing. I have some people in my life that I adore but I know for a fact that they will never ask me about myself or at least for the most part. I don’t believe they don’t care about me, but they don’t ask because they don’t have the head-space for the question or the answer. Fine… so we talk about other things.

If you do not care for the answer, do not ask the question! It’s more offensive to ask and not be present for the answer than to ask for the sake of it.

3. Ask somenting else instead

Simple. If you don’t want to know, if you don’t care – ask something else. You’ll steer away from the “nothing” question and answer and steer onto something probably more interesting for both of you. I also think this ties into my next point – for those who genuinely want to ask but want to frame their question another way.

4. If you do care… show it

This i think is where I struggled earlier. Because I did genuinely care. However, a generic question that we ask like 20 people a day is going to come out wrong to people who are struggling.

So… let’s do better.

• go back to your previous conversations and find something to ask them that they’ve told you before

• instead of asking how are you when you know they’ve been teetering on the edge of hell for months, ask if they’d like to meet, want to chat about anything

• apologise – be a grown up and recognise your said the wrong thing and just say sorry

• make a change – research, ask questions – find out how to support people or find out how they are

• be genuine – were all gonna fudge up with our communication at some point. Whether it’s through mis-identifying someone, using the wrong language when describing someone or something… but we can do better.

• do your research – if your person is super important to you then do your research! Find out how to support them, get support yourself – recently I’ve been on the phone to Mermaids for help with supporting a transgender client and Hopeline for help with a friend with addiction, depression and attempted suicide

• keep communicating – just keep at it! We’ll all get there!

Going back to being authentic

Authenticity is my life’s word at the moment. I’m going to bore you and me and everyone with it. But honestly this is about being truly authentic when you speak, think and act. Your engagements whether with yourself or with others must be aligned to your purpose, your vision and your true nature.

If you don’t give a shit how I am don’t ask me. If you want to know how I am – think about saying something other than “how are you”. Practice active listening. I know when people talk to you it’s super easy to hear the first thing and be like ok hold on, hold on let me reply. But real, deep, to the core attention on someone you care about comes from active listening.

Quick side note: active listening

Active listening is the practice of shutting up and listening to the words coming out of someone’s mouth for the entire time they want to speak, without you saying or thinking aaaaanything other than what they are telling you.

It’s bloody hard. No seriously it is. I’ve been practising it for a few months now, since the beginning of the summer. And it’s crazy hard. But it’s also just so important because you need to learn how to be present. In today’s life, everything is about instant gratification. But when we speak to others, when we engage with those we choose to hold space for – we need to be present, to engage and to really seem to understand. Otherwise, what’s the point?! Making time for someone when everyone around us has seemingly zero hours for anything, spending any amount of time with someone being present, listening and caring for whatever period of time is more vital than you can ever imagine.

So to practice active listening – literally just shush until someone’s finished what they want to say before you jump in with whatever you want to say. Just shush. Simple.

Ok… back to authenticity

Completely lost my train of thought now but here goes…

It’s also perfectly fine to not have the capacity to ask (genuinely ask) how someone is. Because if you’re asking and you’re practising active listening then it is an energy transfer. Which is why it’s so important to be in a good headspace to ask.

I have spent time recently recovering from illness, not responding to texts or picking up the phone because I know that I wouldn’t have the energy for it – mentally, emotionally or spiritually. Instead I fasted, shut myself away, did energy work and napped.

It’s perfectly fine to say – I can’t talk to you today as I’m shattered but shall we speak tomorrow?

What if it’s all a big misunderstanding?

I mean yes of course. I was misunderstood for sure. But grace and growth and peace and energetic freedom comes with learning, understanding and positive change.

We do not have to remain stuck under the weight of “I’m right”. We can instead step outside of our initial defence system and say – ok how can I do better. It’s not right or wrong, if your intention is pure then that’s fine, but don’t stop there. You can’t live a life of intention… your actions must spring forth a change in attitude, routine or behaviours – otherwise intention is nothing more than sweet words stuck in our throats.

Summary

• asking how someone is, is a wonderful way to connect with someone

• asking “how are you?” can be reworded or changed up for something that is going to directly engage with the person you’re interacting with

• practice active listening

• remember it’s not your fault but it’s your responsibility

• listen to your intuition and follow it up with positive action

• live a life aligned entirely to your authentic self – all parts of your energy that exists within you and through you is a reflection of you – make your interactions the same

• it’s ok to get things wrong or to be misunderstood but learn why and make changes based on that

• it’s ok to say “let’s speak tomorrow” if you don’t have capacity for the question or the answer

• if you are unsure how to engage – do your research and also make sure you’re getting support too!

Big kiss x

I am a life and purpose coach specialising in working with womxn. I am also a wellness and development coach at an academy in London. Find out more on my website and contact me for more info x

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