Desdemona: How is’t with you, my lord?
Othello: Well, my good lady.—(aside) Oh, hardness to dissemble!—
On Friday I got an email from an old friend I hadn’t been in touch with for a long while. His email began:
I won’t start by saying ‘how are you?’, because to me it always sounds a bit rushed and accusatory, when you come right out with it, out of the blue. I get a little uneasy when it’s done to me. You have to earn that ‘how are you’. And then, once you’ve earned it, you tend to use it less anyway.
Do you ever have the fear that, returning to human society, you have somehow missed out on something important, like a meeting, and people have been talking about you? You open the door, someone looks up from the crossword, they ask, ‘how are you?’
Anyway, how are you?
I like this a lot because it acknowledges the difficulty while using said difficulty to arrive at the crucial question, by which point, the question feels genuine. ‘How are you’ is often a mirage of a question. It looks for all the world as if somebody is asking how you are. But if you get too close, if you approach that question openly as if you’ve found some kind of solace – maybe you pour out a few daily grievances, maybe you describe why you wish you had done things differently all those years ago, maybe you list in detail the things your brain was whirring with when you couldn’t get to sleep last night, hence feeling wretched now – the question shimmers and breaks apart before your eyes, resolving itself into a blank face. A face that only ever wanted to say ‘Hello mate’ or ‘Where have you been?’ or ‘Just tell me you’re good and then we can both leave this kitchenette without speaking any more.’
I had a flatmate who had a ‘tactic’ for when he bumped into somebody who then asked him how he was. He would only tell them what he had been doing that day. ‘I’ve just been doing a load of washing and writing some emails. Now I’m on my way to the dairy to get some milk.’ He would do this while looking at one of the person’s ears. He would lose his train of thought if he looked at their eyes. The whole interaction was based on him not quite answering the question, but seeming to, just as the question itself doesn’t quite ask its own question, but seems to.
I think my old friend is right: it’s the people who have really earned the ‘how are you’, the people with whom you share the holy grail of comfortable silences, who don’t tend to ask it very often – with them, you can plunge straight into the business of what exactly is going on here. You gravitate towards what’s important. You don’t need the harness of how-are-you to help you get down that crazy slope.
I liked Alina Simone’s NYT piece about the differences between Russian and American responses to the question ‘How are you?’. Americans will answer ‘Fine’, she writes. But were you to answer ‘Fine’ to a Russian, they will think one of two things:
(1) you’ve been granted a heavenly reprieve from the wearisome grind that all but defines the human condition and as a result are experiencing a rare and sublime moment of fineness or (2) you are lying.
She describes being in an elevator with her Russian grandmother after asking that question. Her grandmother’s stock response:
“Terrible,” to which she might add, “Why? Because being old is terrible.” Beat. “And I am very old.”
I definitely veer towards more of a Russian response than an American one, but here in New Zealand I think we tend to weasel the information out of people with less direct questions, like ‘How’s things?’ or ‘How’s your day been?’ or ‘How you going?’ (That ‘going’ softens the existential nature of the question, doesn’t it – refocuses it on your progress through life. You’re going somewhere, not just loitering around, being.) Maybe as a result of this lifetime of fudging, if someone abruptly asks me ‘how or you’ I sometimes feel a bit trapped and put-upon. Like Father Dougal caught on the roundabout in his speeding milk float, it’s all too much, too soon.
But there is always a time when no other question will do. Somehow there must be a way to know when the question must be asked, and when the question has to ask exactly what it appears to.