Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Beyond a surface question February 22, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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I converted this image to black-and-white and upped the brightness. This was shot on the Minnesota Highway 19 curve just north of Vesta, my southwestern Minnesota hometown.

Sometimes travel through life is easy. Clear vistas. Clear vision. Sunshine and goodness. But other times life isn’t good. Storms and challenges prevail. Yet, the question remains the same, “How are you?” Do you answer honestly, or do you pretend all is fine? (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from March 2012, photographed along Minnesota State Highway 19 just north of Vesta.)

“HOW ARE YOU?” I dislike that question. It’s trite and mostly a meaningless nicety.

Does anyone really want an honest answer?

When I’ve failed to respond with the expected “good,” eyes shift downward, feet fidget, uncomfortableness wedges in.

What if I’m not good? What if life isn’t great and fine and wonderful? Then what?

I will tell you I’m OK. And, if you’re listening, you may pause. Worry may fleet across your face. But, if you’re like most people, you won’t push. You’ll walk away.

Recently I told a friend I didn’t like the “How are you?” question. So now, whenever we see each other, she says, “It’s good to see you.” I like that. Those words are warm and welcoming and, because I know my friend, genuine.

Perhaps we all ought to try being a little more genuine with one another. Caring beyond casual surface conversation. Picking up on cues that maybe everything isn’t alright. And then, listening. Really listening.

If you ask the question “How are you?”, ask because you truly care. Not just to make polite conversation.

Thoughts?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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41 Responses to “Beyond a surface question”

  1. Janelle Parry Says:

    Audrey, I love,love, love your “glad to see you”approach ,I have always disliked the “how are you” question”. Why haven’t I thought of that?! Wonderful. So enjoy your blogs.

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    When I ask that question I do want an honest answer even if it is difficult to hear the response . But I suspect you are correct—many people do not want to hear the real answer. I like your friend’s phrase as well because it puts a whole different tone to the conversation ,doesn’t it? Hope today is a fabulous day for you.

  3. Dan Traun Says:

    Exactly. It is like running the gauntlet at the office every morning with a chorus of good, fine and can’t complain echoing the hallways. Statistically someone had a bad night or weekend. I like a simple smile; words are not always necessary.

  4. Great Topic of Conversation Today! There are times I feel like a polite, correctness robot going through the motions. It depends on the audience at times in how I act, react as well as converse, listen. I have been practicing my listening skills and learning to shut my mouth, open my ears and make eye contact a little more, especially with my family and friends. There are times my social skills get away from me due to lack of patience or lack of use or just plain awkwardness. It is a fine balance at times. I make sure I take the time though for those friendships and relationships I want to nurture in my life 🙂 Happy Day – Enjoy!

  5. Larry Says:

    My tendency is to attribute the best intentions to those interacting with me during the day.

  6. Authenticity is so refreshing!

  7. Wow, that will be such a hard habit to break. We all have conditioned reflexes to everyday life, such as the, “how are you” question and the typical “I’m fine” or “okay, how are you” though, like you said, we really don’t want or are prepared for, a detailed (especially a negative) response, considering the Pandora’s Box that it may open. But both sides of that conversation are equally at fault for the continuance of that reflex, the questioner, who is merely trying to be polite and the one who is being questioned, also trying to be polite and not getting them both into a long, drawn-out conversation about ones trials and tribulations. While I agree that the very question may be trite, it may be a result of our rapidly paced life-style that unlike days gone bye, when leisurely conversations were the norm, tend to have us all in a bit of a hurry and less available to polite conversation. This rant was not meant to be an excuse, but merely a possible explanation or perhaps a view from a different angle so to speak.. So in closing I will leave you with another of those conditioned reflexes that sometimes bug me… “Have a nice day”.. Well here’s a question for you Mr.or Ms. Sunshine..”What if my day has been so lousy, so crappy, so dark and bleak and that up until now it has shown not a single sign of getting any better, could your trite, “Have a Nice Day” (insert smiley-face here) comment possibly help one bit? Sorry Audrey I just go off on these tangents now and then and this has been on of those times. lol

    • I appreciate your thoughtful “tangent,” Jake. You offer some additional insights and I think you are pretty much spot-on correct with your assessments.

      Like you, I also dislike “Have a nice day.” It’s likely spoken out of habit more than anything. Perhaps we could all attempt to be a bit more original in extending greetings.

      Other words/phrases that seem trite and over-used to me include: “Awesome” and “It is what it is.” Let’s find synonyms for “awesome.” The second phrase seems a dismissal of whatever situation may exist.

      • One of my biggest irritants now is “the bottom line is” oh, how that drives me up a wall.

      • I haven’t heard that too often. It seems phrases go through cycles of over-usage.

        I also really really really dislike these two words: “Buck up!”

      • Now see? It must also be attributed to colloquialisms as I never hear the expression “Buck Up!”… Though a Red Sox player a few years ago, when they were going for the World Series kept using the phrase “Cowboy Up!” it caught on here for a while but has faded into obscurity.. Thankfully.

      • “Cowboy up!” seems pretty similar to “Buck up!” I’ve only heard my husband and members of his family use the term “Buck up!” Ten years ago my husband advised me to “Buck up!” when I was suffering from an asthmatic type of attack caused by whooping cough. I don’t think he realized the seriousness of the situation. He now knows never to speak those two words to me. 🙂

      • He is truly a wise man..

  8. treadlemusic Says:

    I think these thoughts haven’t really crossed the minds of the questioner. Some great alternatives that may more truly reflect what was intended are possible but the courteous “How are you” phrase has been part of our upbringing and, although not too sincerely meant to be answered with a “heavy” response, is still an acknowledgement of the other person’s proximity (at the very least!). Ranks with……”Hey! How’s it goin’??” Definitely all food for thought!!!!! BTW…..thanks for the snowy photo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. I have a habit of saying, “How ya doin’?” as a greeting. I don’t always say it, but often enough that it probably gets on the nerves of people who want to give me a more in-depth answer than I expect. You are absolutely right to raise the question about what constitutes a genuine greeting versus question that could lead to a larger conversation. My habit is more of an acknowledgement of another person, a way of seeing who is in front of me, but your post today makes me realize I could do better in my wording.

  10. Good to see you. I like that

  11. Jackie Says:

    Guilty….But I REALLY DO mean, how are you? (when I ask a person this question) and I DO want to hear, if they are so inclined to tell me, but I get it…. I think those of us (especially in the midwest) use this phase simply as a casual greeting, it goes hand-in-hand with “Hi”. “Hi, How are you”? Sometimes I’m not glad to see someone, so I wouldnt want to say, “good to see you”, I’d rather say Hey, how are ya…. so as not to be rude. Meaningless I know, but I think each circumstance may be different, depending on the person your talking to, the timing, and mood. Your post will remind me to be sure I’m willing to stop and listen if I ask the question, “how are you”?

    • I think you’re right. “How are you?” has become a common phrase, like “hi.” And, yes, each circumstance differs. The point really is to get all of us to stop and think about what we are saying. And then, most importantly, to listen.

  12. Marneymae Says:

    I think about this quite often.
    Lately, when someone asks me, I’ll answer as John O’Donohue mentions in his interview with Krista Tippett “not too bad”.
    Non-specific, but offers something to the asker.
    Sometimes I’ll just smile, because sometimes I’m not in the mood to either lie or tell really how I am doing, good or otherwise.
    It’s a complex question, we are complex beings, & life can sometimes be difficult.
    And I’ve taken on the practice of not asking that question to others (or “what have you been up to”, because really, how on earth does one really answer such a question?)
    While I’m rambling on, I’ll also not ask that horrible question of “so, what do you do?”
    For the record, I’d be interested in knowing how you are.
    I love diving below the surface.
    Wishing you moments of brightness & ease in your heart-mind.
    & as ever, a deep bow to you for your blog.

  13. Sue Ready Says:

    Audrey your blog posting was thought provoking and insightful. I enjoyed the reader responses with many showing differing opinions or they viewed your question from another angle. I have found when I tell people how I really am that is NOT what they want to hear. Often they seem surprised with my candid remark. But to me why say I am fine if I am not. Then people wait for more in depth information which takes more time so overall its easier for people to just respond I’m fine. And then everyone moves on.

  14. Littlesundog Says:

    I’m truthful. And when I ask how someone’s day is going or how they’ve been, and they give me “Oh, ok”… I often say with a smile or a bit of mischief in my voice, “Well that wasn’t very convincing!”. I can’t tell you how many times the person immediately tells me what has them down or what’s happened in their day. I get the feeling that people open up when they know someone cares enough and notices they might not be “ok”. I like deep and real conversation.

  15. Ralph Hopper Says:

    I have relatives in Brown County, can you advise how far this is from your photograph ? >

  16. Gunny Says:

    The Brits ((British) finally got me to not say: :Have a nice day” as they considered it insulting that I would tell them what type of day they should have. Of course, I am also one of those NBY (Not born yesterday) who in all probability is NFH (Not from here) and so my vocabulary is expanded by WWII veterans, cowboy, prison, military and any variety of other terms and phrases used by the various notorious and nefarious and also-ran groups. Once I was asked: “How are you” and I told the young lady a western (cowboy) phrase that essentially described how my day had gone. Geez! Was she EVER offended! I didn’t realize this lady would equate herself to a horse! Hence forth, I rarely respond other than with a nod or some generic response until I have had a chance to size up the one speaking and get and idea of what, who and where they are from. I think our society is getting a little too sensitive to some really trivial issues. If I know you well as “one of the guys”, my response might even redden the faces of those nearby, Ask me or tell me anything you want, just be prepared that my response may not be a “canned” response.

  17. Great post. I so wish I’d be seeing you soon and could ask you how you are. Ha.

  18. I find that it depends on the context. When someone in church asks me how I am, and I know they’re just trying be polite, I’ll go along with it and smile, and say “good.”

    You’re so right though. It’s a silly question that we overuse, and we end up not meaning what we say.

    A friend of mine suffers from a chronic illness, and I’m sure she hates this question. I was hanging out with her one day, and a good friend of ours asked how she was doing. She’s responded, “I’m good.” Realizing what she had just done, she corrected herself. “I don’t know why I just said that. I’ve actually had a really hard week. I’m in a lot of pain.”

    I really admired that. When we give the easy answer to good friends of ours, the people who genuinely want to know and who care, it’s like we’re lying and keeping them at arms length. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • That’s a really good point that response depends on context.

      I applaud your friend for correcting herself. We should all be honest with our closest friends. These are the people who truly care about us, and not surface care.


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