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Journal Entry

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"How are you?"

In an IM conversation the other morning, it suddenly occurred to me for the very first time, what this "how are you?" question means.

(Americans, of course, ask the question twice, which confuses Europeans. When we greet you at the door we say "Hi! How you doin'? Come sit down!" This first "how are you?" is phatic; it's a synonym for "hello". We don't want to know, yet. Then, when we have gotten coffee and sat down, we say, "so... how are you?" Then we want you to tell us. It's this second question I'm referring to.)

I have always found it a frustrating question to answer, because I sort of feel under pressure to produce some kind of statistically accurate survey of my life. Like I ought to assign a rating each to health, parenting, day job, writing, finances, life management, marriage, sports, travel, entertainment, social life, gabbanut, reactions to politics and art and events in the wider world -- each one of which would itself, of course, be an average across finer-grained subregions (e.g. "the novel's going slow, but I just wrote a short story")... and integrate across them to yield up a quantitative summary, a "Great!", "Fine", or "Not so good."

Because it is always "great!" in some regards and "not so good" in others, isn't it?

Since most people do not have such difficulties, I would wonder whether other people's various realms of life were more likely to travel in phase with one another than mine; or if other people usually had some monumental event going on, good or bad, which drowned out all other signals.

But now I've finally figured out what the question actually means.

It doesn't mean "give me a statistically accurate reading on your total state." It just means "tell me a true story about your life right now"!

This means I can actually, in good conscience, construct a narrative capturing just one particular salient facet of my life. That is a much easier problem! Instead of suffering the acute cognitive load of some kind of total survey, I can just pick a topic and begin!

Imagine the improved conversational efficiencies I am about to reap!

So, in this regard anyway, I am doing great!

How are you?

Posted by benrosen at November 16, 2010 11:21 AM | Up to blog

Randall Munroe also once had this observation.

Posted by: Noam at November 21, 2010 11:43 AM

Thank you for this insight! I am having exactly the same problems you describe. I will try and implement your solution.

Posted by: Lise A at November 21, 2010 02:26 PM

This is particularly to the point because one of the questions answered by your choice of story is what is uppermost in your thoughts right now (that you are willing to share)? Or even what aspects of your life shall we talk about?

If I ask you how you are, and you start with Well, those kids of mine are a hoot; the other day… , then you are looking for that conversation. If you start with I can't seem to shake this cold, that's a different one. I just read this terrific book is another good answer.

I am looking for signals of levels of intimacy, among other things, but your choice of which true story is also going to tell me more about how you are than a statistical analysis.

Although, now that I think about it, pulling out a chart would be really funny. There's probably an app for that.


Posted by: Vardibidian at November 21, 2010 03:19 PM

I am an automaton, posting to your weblog in order to sell pharmaceutical aphrodisiacs or games of chance - I didn't regret the decision to type, rather than copy and paste, the first part of this comment until I got to "pharmaceutical aphrodisiacs." How are you?


Posted by: Matt at November 21, 2010 04:23 PM

Oh for goodness sakes the answer is always 'fine!' Life is not always complicated. HARUMPH.

Posted by: Haddayr at November 27, 2010 02:59 AM

No, Haddayr, that's the first how are you. If, after I say "how are you?" and you say "fine", and we take off our coats, sit down, order food, stretch, and dish about the waiter, I then say, "so -- Haddayr. How are you?", you then say, "Fine", it means "bug off, let's talk about something less intimate and more cerebral."

That cannot always be the answer...?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 29, 2010 02:20 PM

For some odd reason, I think there was a Garfield cartoon (of all things) on the same topic.

Couldn't find it, but it was something along the lines of someone asking Garfield, "How are you?"

Garfield then responds "Do you mean that in the meaningless social fluff kind of way, or do you actually want to know?"

The other says "The meaningless social fluff..."

To which he replies, "Ah! Fine, how are you?"

There is a chance I'm confusing it with another comic.

In unrelated yet bizarre news, we are 3 links distant on LinkedIn, so I know someone who knows someone who knows you professionally apparently.

Posted by: jamesG at December 3, 2010 02:58 PM
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