The most disingenuous three words in the English language. Unless you are the ultimate cynic and cast your lot with I love you. I hope that’s not the case.
Do we ever mean it when we ask? Really? When is the last time you passed someone in the hall and said “how are you” and truly wanted to take the time to know how they were? I’ll bet it’s been a while.
I’m not holier than thou. I say it all the time and rarely care. If some slick gunslinger is quicker on the draw than me, I even add the oft-disregarded, “I am well, and you?” Of course, I don’t want to know.
I get these wild hairs – often they involve really stupid things, but this one actually had redeeming potential. I decided to spend my lunch hour in the lobby of my building asking people I saw, “How are you?” and giving them available time and a proper interest to see if they would answer.
Most people don’t stop long enough to notice my disarming voice beckoning them to unburden themselves. The first seven I asked kept moving and gave the appropriate return without so much as an upward glance.
I don’t believe that anyone is “fine” like these seven told me. Pawn your lies and rote responses elsewhere.
Number eight seemed to think I had serious mental problems and eyed me warily while reaching into her purse for either a small handgun or pepper spray. Needless to say I decided against an elevator ride with this charmer. “I’ll take the next one, Bonnie Parker.”
You can trap the elderly.
In walked a slow, older gentleman. Number nine. He began scanning the directory and seemed somewhat confused.
“How are you?” I asked in a very welcoming and reassuring tone.
“I’m fine young man, just fine,” he replied. Something was different, though. Before he spoke, he turned and made eye contact.
He was rather unkempt, smelled like my high school gym teacher, and had a thick bushel of hair growing out of each nostril. But he smiled warmly. In fact, he smiled all over… an infectious smiled that started at his lips, slowly ran through his eyes and worked its way off his person and onto me. I liked this old dude.
“Say, would you know where the office of Litton & Driscoll is located,” he asked.
“I think that’s on the fourth floor.”
He patted me gently on the chest with some paperwork he had rolled into a tube, like a kid’s telescope. “Thank you, friend.”
“Don’t mention it.” Judging from his demeanor, this might be my first victim who actually was okay. He might just be fine. I had to be certain, though. “Are you sure you are fine?”
He looked at me long whilst I returned my best, biggest, dopiest smile.
“Well, I am headed up to settle my wife’s affairs. So, if you want an honest answer, I suppose I’m not fine.”
Oh boy… Panic! In over my head… I thought I would learn about a foot ailment… or a wayward kitten. Not this. Why am I so stupid? All of me wanted to say, “I’m fine, and you?” But I got myself into this.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine.”
“Yes, sir. For 22 years now.”
“Seem young for that.”
I really liked this old dude.
“How long were you married?”
“Fifty-three years last August….”
And so began a wonderful story of love and loss.
You know what? I’m glad I asked. In fact, I’m going to break the habit of asking when I don’t care. From now on, I will only ask, “how are you” if I have time and interest in the answer. Try it yourself. Better yet, come join Joseph and me for coffee tomorrow morning and see that infectious smile.