It rolled off of my tongue without me really thinking about it, a typical Monday-morning lunchroom conversation. He was getting coffee as I filled my mug with hot water and so I smiled and asked, "How are you?"
There was an awkward pause as he stopped and looked at me. I was focused on my task, watching the steaming water make its way up the side of the cup, enjoying the way the tea swirled down into it, and so it took me a moment to realize he hadn't answered. Thinking he simply hadn't heard, I looked up at him and asked it again.
He smiled then, and responded in the typical fashion. But he didn't stop there:
"Usually people ask without really wanting to know the answer - they're just saying it in passing, hurrying on to the next thing. They don't want a truthful response, just a polite one."
He's right. "How are you?" is a politeness, a nicety, one of those things civilized people ask and answer without giving much thought to either part of the exchange. It has the potential to be a deep question, a probing question, a caring question - but ninety-nine times out of one-hundred the asker expects just a simple, "I'm great, thanks. How are you?" in return. And though I noticed his pause, though I did follow up and ask again, the truth was that this was one of those times.
It got me to thinking about words and the way we use them, about social norms and how easy it is to say things without really contemplating what they might mean. And for the rest of the day, I couldn't ask somebody how they were without pausing, pondering, realizing what it was I was asking.
"How are you?"
It should be a question that shows caring, concern, empathy, that says I share this common human experience with you and am wondering what joys or sorrows you might have to share along the way. I should be prepared to hear stories in response, to hear the truth and not some shrugged off answer. And I should give the same in return. I should take the time to listen, to really hear, not just assuming I know the answer in advance.
Words have meaning, and I should think about those meanings when I use them, being conscious and deliberate in how I communicate with those around me.
So. How are you?