“How’s it going?”

“What’s up?”

“How are you these days?”

There’s a million ways to say it, whether you’re chatting in the hallway for twenty seconds or meeting up with an old friend for the first time since fifth grade. And there’s a million ways to answer: “fantastic”, “in a creative rut”, “recovering from a week-long slump”…

But who are we kidding? In actuality, everyone ends up taking their pick between “fine”, “great”, and “doing well”. Then, of course, there has to be the reciprocal “what about you?” to which one hears the hollow echo of their own answer: “me too, thanks.”

It’s evident that the practice of exchanging such questions is, at best, a halfhearted attempt at conversation. At worst, it’s a facade of politeness you put up in front of someone you have no intention of exchanging a meaningful conversation with. This is not inherently a bad thing; it’s a universally agreed upon tool of social convenience.

In fact, when I was first learning English as a child, I remember one of the first phrases my textbook taught me after “hello” and “goodbye” were “how are you?” and “I’m fine, thank you”. It goes to show how basic and fundamental that exchange is considered to be in day-to-day conversation. Not only that, but it’s so easy that a first-grader with the barest grasp of the alphabet should be able to understand and express it.

But no textbook will teach you how to say “I’m not fine, thank you.” I find it ironic that a question-and-answer set that’s supposed to be so simple actually encapsulates a very slippery and complex ability: to accurately process and articulate how one is feeling at the moment. That’s something most adults find difficult, let alone a first-grader. Because never do we feel just happy or sad or angry in those flat, singular words we were first taught. At any given moment, we are experiencing a myriad of passing thoughts and sentiments, some more prominent than others, which combine our internal turmoil and external circumstances in a beautifully complex way that makes each moment unique.

Perhaps our practice of reflexively answering “I’m fine” has not only to do with the social convenience it brings, but also the much more malignant habit of brushing our emotions aside without truly putting in the effort to decipher them, as well as our unwillingness to be vulnerable enough to share how we truly feel.

I was having a difficult time last week, and many times when I looked visibly worn-out, friends and acquaintances asked me how I was doing or whether I was okay. I found myself without the energy to answer honestly sometimes. It’s so much easier to smile and answer like I would on any other day.

Particularly in my statistics class, when I began tearing up mid-quiz and had to leave the room, my teacher was quick to become concerned and ask me if everything was alright. I told him oh, I’ll be fine, it’s nothing really, and he proceeded to say: “alright, well, let me know if you need anything. I just didn’t expect to see someone like you… I mean, I didn’t expect to see you like this.”

I was extremely grateful for how understanding and caring my teacher was, but I couldn’t help but wonder: what had he initially meant by ‘someone like you’? What had led him to imply that he expected me (or someone like me) to be happy all the time? Perhaps it all has to do with an issue of emotional dishonesty that I, and the people at my school in general, fail to recognize sometimes.

And thus, I propose a golden rule of genuine how-do-you-do’s:

  1.  That I will never ask someone how they’re doing unless I’m genuinely invested in hearing how they’re actually doing. I will treat the question with the gravity it deserves: as if I am cautiously inviting myself into their emotional realm.
  2. That I will (mostly) answer honestly when I am asked how I’m doing. You can’t expect everyone to start owning up to their feelings without you doing so first. The qualifier “mostly” is there because I recognize that sometimes, you are asked this question by someone who absolutely does not care how you’re doing. After all, when the principal smiles at me in the hallway and asks me how I am, I’m not going to stand there and explain the various ups and downs of my day.

I am hereby pledging to keep this rule in mind, and invite all my readers to do the same. It is by no means an easy rule to follow, but perhaps it can cause an external and internal shift in our lives: on a cultural level, normalizing a more open attitude to revealing and discussing our feelings, and on an individual level, being able to embrace our own wonderfully rich (and sometimes hurting) minds.