It’s an Aussie thing to answer “How are you?” with “Not too bad, thanks”. Isn’t it?
For most of my life, I’ve answered “How are you?” with positive statements. Usually “good”, “okay”, or the soul crusher “busy”. I noticed I was using these “good” statements even when I wanted to cry, and it was mostly in church or wider community settings that my knee jerk reaction was to say “yea, good thanks!” with a chipper tone and a smile. Even when I was not good. I think it is a result of years of hospitality work where the customer generally does not care whether you are good, bad, or in between, as long as you can still get the coffee or take the order down. Years of “How are you?” being as much a greeting as “Hello.”
In retail and hospitality, we tend to exchange “How are you”s back and forth in (sometimes) an almost comical fashion:
“Good morning, how are you?”
“Yea, good thanks, how are you?”
“Yea good thanks, how are you?”
Around 4-5 years ago, I learnt that these kinds of interactions leave relationships and interactions empty; soulless even. In a hard time of my life, I had to learn that in order for those who meant the most to me to know that I was not okay, I had to tell them. In order to build real, meaningful relationships in my community, I needed to treat these questions not simply as greetings that don’t need an answer, but as opportunities to connect. I started to try to answer honestly. Sometimes my answer was still “good”, but more likely it involved more than one adjective, or at least more than one word.
I realised not long after I changed my method of answering, that I had eventually swapped out one knee jerk reaction for another. I had moved on from “good thanks”, to “busy”. Don’t get me wrong, working a couple of part-time jobs, studying full-time, managing to still have a social life and a sporting life, and a church life and everything else I threw myself at did result in me being flat-out busy, a lot of the time. I spent my uni days in a constant “busy” lifestyle. No time was spare, it was all to be allocated and made the most of. That made me busy. But “busy” as a response to “How are you?” is still just dismissing the question, really. It’s still treating it as a throw away greeting, and now we can compare how busy we are with each other, and gloat about how intricately the society that prizes productivity over contentness has been weaved into our psyches. So, still not a solution.
When I got pregnant (around 9 months ago), I was miserable. I was sick, tired, depressed, and look back on the time as feeling less than human, let alone feeling like myself. In this time, I tried as hard as I could to answer honestly. I was miserable, sick, tired, and struggling. Then I hit the second trimester where I started to feel better. My answers changed again. I was now “better than last week” or “pretty good actually”. I thought I was doing well to answer truthfully.
I work in a situation where the most regular interaction I have with colleagues is a 5 minute handover each day. The colleague I take over from each evening is new to the workplace, and is very friendly, open and genuine. He always asks me “How are you?” and I can sense that he genuinely means it. Nice guy. I realised one Friday morning, that every single evening so far in the week, I had replied with “Not too bad.” This was almost all he knew of me…was that I was “not too bad.” This frustrated me, because I am more than just “Not too bad.” Yes, 9 months pregnant means that I am tired, I am aching and some days I want to just be at home rather than at work, but still.
Come on woman, you can do better than “Not too bad.” That day I had a good day. I went to an aqua exercise class, I bought really cute muslin to make swaddles, and while I was in line at Spotlight, a woman let me go first because she could see I was in a hurry and uncomfortable. I had had a good day, and I resolved that I wouldn’t answer “How are you?” with “Not too bad.” I would be a little more creative.
5:55pm came around and I walked into the studio for handover. “Hey, how are you?” he asked, dutifully.
“Not too bad, thanks!” came out of my mouth. Damn. At least I managed to follow it up with “the show is sounding good today…I had a really nice interaction in the shops today…”
But damn those habits, am I right?
Here’s the thing. I don’t think we should be hiding when we’re not “good thanks”, or ignoring attempts for others to connect with us, however deeply or shallowly they are intended. After years of duty-driven greetings and interactions, I want more. So when I ask “How are you?”, I’m sorry. What I really mean is “How are you coping with the heat?”, “How are you feeling with your mum in hospital?”, “How is your soul feeling today?”
That’s what I mean when I ask “How are you?” and I’m sorry that I don’t always give you the time or consideration to take your question seriously. There is so much more to how we are than a simple “good” or “not too bad” or “busy” can address, and until we can openly and honestly interact with each other, we will lack real community and connection in our lives. Wouldn’t that be a shame?