“How are you?”
It’s not supposed to be a difficult question, but it often paralyzes me. Through trial, error, and the trapped looks on people’s faces I’ve learned that the truth is inappropriate.
“Not well, really. I couldn’t sleep last night after hearing what might’ve been a gunshot.”
“Well, my mom tried to kill herself again. I really don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“My cat went in to have her teeth cleaned and had a heart attack. She’s in an oxygen chamber, and not doing well.”
This is more than most people want. The convention for casual usage seems to be some variation on “well”, “fine”, or “okay”. Anything less positive is met with awkwardness, if not horror.
When I first realized this, I couldn’t bring myself to lie for the sake of convention. After all, it’s not my fault that they asked without actually caring. Right? So I figured I’d acknowledge their usage of a polite convention.
“I acknowledge your greeting,” I’d say.
That worked poorly and earned me more looks ranging from concern to sympathy. With that feedback, I decided to return the greeting without actually responding to the question.
“Hey,” I’d reply. Or, “Hi.”
That worked well for most situations: passing someone in a hall, entering the small kitchen at work, or trying to get a co-worker to tell me why he’s interrupted me. (I lie, just a little. Nothing helps some people get to the point.)
It just doesn’t feel right in our grocery store. We live in a small, semi-rural town. People around here talk to each other. On the street, in line, at restaurants — it’s a little creepy to my paranoid suburban point of view. When someone here asks how you are, they may actually want to know how you are. Maybe not in detail, but they might be interested in a highlight reel.
It’s taken nearly a decade, but now I can respond appropriately to the local cashiers.
“Fine,” I’ll usually say. This is to mean that nothing in my life is abnormally positive or negative at the moment. If everything’s been coming up Atomic Zombie, I’ll hazard a “pretty well”. A broken down car warrants “been worse”, and when it’s worse than that I’ll just leave it at “tired”.
Then I turn it on them. “And yourself?” I’ll ask innocently, hoping to put them through the kind of mental anguish I’ve suffered for years over this social convention.
“That’s good,” they say. “Paper or plastic?”