July 27, 2005

Fine, How Are You?

A couple of days ago we were discussing the implications of the question, “How are you?” Each commenter had his or her own interpretation, ranging from offense at the question’s insincerity, to glee at the opportunity to tell people what they didn’t want to know. Tamar even posted about the subject on her own blog.

For me the question prompts memories of a bygone life and of cultural adaptation. I was raised among uncouth people, many of them immigrants, who were in the process of painfully learning American social codes. They were naïve enough to take the question “How are you?” at face value and to give honest answers. Ask the question unwarily and you might be hit by a reply such as, “Oy, I’ve got a stomach virus, I’ve been to the bathroom five times already this morning, and that shmuck who calls himself a doctor tells me not to come in.” Or, “How I am? That son of a bitch lost the rent money at the track again, how should I be?”

Most often the question was taken as an invitation to trade minor complaints, often of a medical variety. It was interpreted as a query about who had colds and whether they were getting better.

The answer, “Lousy,” was considered a good opening, to be followed by a full recital.

I was several years into adulthood before I realized that “How are you?” was just a pro forma question, a synonym for “Hello,” and not to be taken literally or answered at length. This was slightly embarrassing for me at first, when I recalled past mistakes in answering, but as time went on I became grateful for the tactfulness of the custom. Most of the time, “Fine” is all I want to say and all I want to hear.

It occurs to me, though, that there’s a corollary question we ask when we really do want to hear details: “What’s new?” People often take this as a prompt to boast about how they’re fixing their porch or how their kid won a soccer trophy or how they bought a plasma TV. This is a question that somewhat fazes me because I usually can’t think of an answer. My life is pleasant and uneventful on the whole, and the only answer I can think of is, “Daily life continues to proceed.” I would have to stop and think for a socially unacceptable length of time – perhaps a whole minute – in order to recall what has made one recent day different from another. So I reply, “Nothing much, what’s new with you?” and feel I’m disappointing my listener. To top it off, when my listener tells me details of everyday life that I would have thought unworthy of telling him, I’m often fascinated.

“What’s new?” has lately transmogrified into “What’s up?” and “Wassup?” but I get the feeling that this question usually lacks the sincerely curious intent of “What’s new?” “Wassup?” is just a pro forma greeting; you say it (the interrogative tone has been lost over the years) and get the identical greeting in response.