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How are you?

fineHow are you?

It’s a simple question. It’s one we ask, and get asked, on a regular basis.

It’s what happens next that I am thinking about this week. I received a phone call this week from an institution doing a study. They started with the standard “How are you?” and were then surprised when I responded – not only that I was fine, but also returning the inquiry. “Um, oh. Oh! I’m fine! Thanks for asking!” The caller seemed so shocked that I would take even a passing interest in his well-being rather then merely see his opening line as a pleasantry.

I wonder if that’s what this question has become to us – a bland statement instead of a genuine inquiry.  Have we as a society become so accustomed to this question going unanswered (or un-listened to) that it has lost all it’s meaning? Have we stopped listening for anything more than a superficial response?

A friend told me that her colleague would rush past her every morning, asking “How are you” as he blurred by, never stopping for a response. She said that after years of this he hadn’t even noticed she didn’t respond anymore.

I wonder if we  (as a broader culture) are choosing not to listen to an answer because we (as a broader culture) are unable or unwilling to really hear the answer. To actually engage with someone about the personal issues that are influencing their day. If we listen to an answer that is more detailed than the ubiquitous “fine” then will have to respond to those realities. We will be challenged to journey with someone else in their joys and sorrows. We will have to acknowledge that someone in front of us is making themselves vulnerable, and inviting us to do the same.

Listening, of course, takes time. It takes effort. It takes intentionality.  It does take that willingness to share a bit of our lives as we are hearing a bit of someone else’s. Admittedly, we all know the over-sharer, the person who will tell their life story to anything or anyone present. But for the average interaction with someone we know, “how are you” should be an indication that we are willing to take that time, without judging or giving advice or rushing off.

As Christians, we should take those “how are you” moments seriously. Jesus taught us the benefits of listening. He listened to others in their challenges, he listened to others to get to know them better and to better understand their points of view, to clear up confusions and to help resolve conflicts. When Jesus asked how people were, he knew he was making the commitment to hear the answer. He listened as people began to open up and find healing and acceptance and love. He actually wanted to know how people were by finding out who these people were.

We’re invited to do the same. We can choose to continue using “how are you” as a superficial greeting, or we can use it with intention. As we increase our intention in asking, we will increase our relationship building – and we’ll learn that the response of “fine” almost never means that. We will see beyond the “fine” mask into the truth – people are happy, scared, sad, elated, overjoyed, terrified, uncertain, etc. We all want to be listened to: to be heard, known, loved. Our challenge is to begin by listening to others to help build community, just like Jesus did.


About Laura Marie Piotrowicz

I'm a high-energy priest, now serving in the Diocese of Niagara, catching glimpses of the kingdom in daily life. I consider church to be a verb, and I'm passionate about prayer, eco-theology, and social justice. I love travel, reading, canoeing, camping, gardening and cooking, playing with my dogs, and drinking good coffee.
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6 Responses to How are you?

  1. Good day.

    For many years now “how are you?” has been, for most, part of a ritualized greeting. This is the case even between friends and family. I have heard people complain about others saying, “don’t ask how they are, they will tell you!”

    One of the corollaries to this is the question, “are you okay?” when someone has suffered a loss, injury, trauma etc. I don’t like this, usually they aren’t really okay, but will say they are. If we ask, “are you as okay as you can be?” we are then affirming that what the person is feeling is real and that there is nothing wrong with them having those feelings. It’s okay for them to be hurting emotionally, spiritually or physically.

    • Hi Talia,
      Thanks for your input. I agree that we need to give people time to share their feelings – good or bad – and to provide them the space to do just that.
      “How are you” may be meaningless in the broader culture, but in the Christian context should we be more intentional about listening when we ask these types of questions? I think we should.
      I’ve sometimes used something like “I hope you are well” when greeting folks to let them know that I am wanting and willing to listen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Are there other comments that folks have found useful to engage?

  2. We rush about in our world so quickly, we forget Prayers, thoughts and hopes for sure. I spoke with someone who said he had a 28 hour day everyday, and few seconds to spare. I asked him if during the moments of any day could he pray, for all who he was responsible for in his job, while he was driven from one event to another, by his staff. He said he never thought of it until I mentioned it. Hope and prayers come at any time, so remind anyone who is so busy, to ask God for 15 seconds of his time. We all need 15 seconds and God is always there to hear us, even in a 28 hour day.

    • Ron, I agree completely. Every time we enter into prayer, it’s as though we’re responding to God’s question “How are you?,” with full appreciation that we are going to be listened to – whether it’s for a few seconds or for a few hours.
      Wouldn’t it be great if we, as Christians, could offer the same willingness to listen – to actually want to know what’s going with someone we’re engaging with?

  3. Kyle Norman

    Hey LauraMarie

    I have to be honest that I often go on auto pilot. How are You? Great how are you doing? It’s kind of standard. This has implications on so many different levels – from our social media interactions, to our personal interactions, to how open we are to allow people to get to know the ‘real us’. Despite what the book says, there are times when I’m not ok and your not ok.

    This post raises a lot of intruiging thoughts – not simply about how we welcome and respond to eachother, but about how we view our call to be authentic, caring, and unhypocritical people.

    • Hi Kyle. I think we all go to autopilot from time to time! And there are some interactions where the “I’m fine/how are you” response is all that someone’s looking for – as an example, the barista may not actually want to know all about you – aside from your name for the cup! And a coffee shop with a long lineup is not the time nor place to divulge the deepest desires of our hearts to a stranger.
      I think our challenge, however, is to realise that there ARE times in our lives where we’re challenged to go deeper. Not all of our relationships will be as superficial as our connection to an unknown barista. And it’s for us to distinguish how connected we are to someone and to deepen that relationship through intentional listening and sharing.
      In conversations with folks, we have to be willing to be vulnerable and open up – it’s not a one-way street. If we’re not willing to listen to others, we can’t expect them to be willing to listen to us. If we don’t want to get to know someone else, we can’t be shocked when they don’t really know us.

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