“How are you?”
“I’m good, how are you?”
If you’re anything like me, you get this question several times a day.
In my four years at The Claremont Colleges, I’ve noticed how frequently this quick dialogue plays out. It functions as one of the effortless ways to greet friends passing by, or easily launch into small talk with peers. I’ve memorized its easy formula, and engaged in both sides of the conversation every single day.
Recently, though, when I’ve asked and answered this question, I’ve noticed its routineness feels more robotic than genuine. Oftentimes when I’m asked this question, I don’t give a full-fleshed response. And, in most circumstances, neither will my peers.
My concern about this phrase sparked earlier in the semester, when I saw a friend on my way to my 11 a.m. class. Naturally, I was in a rush, already two minutes late to the seminar, and didn’t have time to jump into an elaborate conversation. I asked “How’s it going?” out of habit and reflex. Admittedly, when she answered that she wasn’t feeling too great, it kind of threw me off guard.
After hearing her non-cookie-cutter response and analyzing how interchangeably I use this phrase, I started to think of how routine, mundane, and ultimately meaningless the phrase became in my everyday vocabulary.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this superficial question is the fast food of socializing: a quick and cheap attempt to create a substantive interaction.
I ask myself, Why do I use this phrase so often? Most of the time, it comes out when I’m on the go or don’t have time to stop, park, and have a real sit-down conversation. Hence, I’ll spit it out quickly, banking on the assumption that our exchange will be minimally brief. However, in other situations when I have enough time to fully engage, I’ll ask what they’ve been up to, or come up with more inventive, ample questions.
After realizing how often I depend on this phrase as a social clutch, I searched for factors explaining both my dependence on this question and my logic for offering such an ambiguous, one-dimension response.
Usually, I reckoned, it’s because giving a short answer can be a time-saver, both for me and for my peer. It’s a quick, friendly way to sum everything up without warranting a follow-up question or concern.
It works well for Claremont students operating on a busy,fast-paced schedule, with a variety of interests and extracurricular activities everyday. Constantly hustling between classes and scrambling to make meetings, there sometimes isn’t time to stop and have a quality conversation, even with a friend. Consequently, the question-and-response scheme becomes second nature.
Besides its logistical convenience, responding with “I’m good” may be less emotionally taxing. When someone says “I’m good,” I don’t get any insight into their lives. As a result, I have no option but to assume all is well.
I’m not proposing that saying “I’m good” is a problem: if I don’t know someone, or don’t feel comfortable sharing, I don’t have to. That is the beauty of conversation: individuals have the authority and right to be as transparent or open as they please. In that circumstance,“I’m good” has come in handy for me frequently.
However, I’ve also noticed that even when I’m having not-so-great days, I still tell people I’m good. I don’t usually share those moments with my peers, or even my friends. Sometimes, I abstain from revealing my bad days to conserve time for both parties. But most often, I don’t answer honestly because I either don’t want to burden others with my problems, or because of the social pressure to always be good. Should I confess to feeling something aside from this norm, I worry my peers will judge me, and I will be the only person who isn’t thriving every second of the day. I fear that people might actually be concerned, or put off, if I reveal the more intimate and often messy details of my imperfect life.
I’ve subconsciously the phrase serves as a defense mechanism, a cop-out from disclosing my true feelings. I’ve grown so accustomed to “I’m good” that I’m not only taken aback if someone ever responds differently; I’m also unwilling to offer an alternative myself.
Perhaps I ask and answer this question automatically because that’s what is socially “acceptable.” Now that I notice how effortlessly the phrase rolls off my tongue, I’m more convinced I’ve been replicating this dialogue more out of politeness than true interest in their circumstances or concern for their well-being. Even more frightening is the notion that by replicating this social formula, I’m not only anticipating a humdrum reply; I may not even be interested in forming an emotional connection in the first place.
It’s easy to see why the question “How are you?” has become such a prevalent phrase in our conversations. It’s a sign of courtesy, and a quick way to reaffirm that we are interested in our peers’ healths, activities, and well-beings. But, it’s also important to ask why we have constructed a formula, a generic script when we raise this question.
I’m not implying that this phrase is entirely devoid of good intention, and cannot be used to demonstrate that individuals care for one another. I merely note that because this phrase gets tossed around so frequently and robotically in my own life, I rarely give a more specific, detailed answer. What is, or should be, a legitimate question has lost its luster, and become a generic and rehearsed filter in my social script.
Katie Baughman SC ’18 is an Economics major with an English minor, a loud singer, and a terrible dancer. She has greatly enjoyed her time at TSL over the last three years and will miss the office once she graduates.