Where I live, the typical greeting upon seeing someone you know is to ask about their general well-being? The question is almost automatic and is often answered with the same or similar question.
Man From Accounting: “Hi, how’s it going?”
Woman From HR: “Well, hello. How’ve you been?”
Many other English speaking places around the world have similar practices. For example, Londoner’s say “All right?” when they mean to say hello. And like here, “All right?” is the expected reply. Rarely are we actually interested in the welfare of the other; we use it as an extended greeting. That is not to say that everyone who asks the question isn’t concerned with answer. I’m guilty of doing the same thing.
I’ve been trying for many years to break this habit and become an active listener. Most people, I think, are not equal partners in a conversation; we are typically just waiting for our turn to speak. So, when people ask me “How are you?” I try to reply with an actual answer to this question. It amuses me when my answer throws them off and it gives me the chance to ask them the same question. For a brief moment, we find ourselves having an active conversation.
“I’m okay” or “Fine, how are you?” are also automatic answers that we use to answer the question. Most of the time, we’re not absolutely truthful because either we don’t want to reveal our private condition or we believe the person asking is not really interested in the details.
Since October, I’ve been asked different variations of this question many times. And many of those times, the question was a sincere inquiry of how I’m actually doing. I think most people want to believe that I’m okay, even when they suspect that I’m not. Still, others have asked out of habit and then promptly felt bad about asking the question.
While I am comforted by the sincerest inquiry about my emotional well-being, I have found it easier to answer “I’m okay.” I do this, not to protect my feelings or that I don’t think the question is sincere, but to protect the person who is asking the question. I can sense their empathy and I don’t want to make their burden heavier.
It’s easier to say “I’m okay” than “I’m a little upset that we received a letter from the insurance company addressed to David. The letter informed him that he has been removed from our health insurance plan and that if he’s ever looking for coverage in the future, they hope that he’d choose them.”
It’s easier to say “I’m okay” than “I had a moment before Christmas Dinner when I realized we set out three chairs instead of four at the kid’s table.”
It’s easier to say “I’m okay” than “I’m not having a good day and I can’t stay focused on work. I’ve been thinking about the people in our grief support group and hoping they can get through this, too.”
The next time you see me, and you extend your hand or open your arms for a hug, just know that when I say “I’m okay,” I’m really saying “I’m not okay, but you are making right now okay for me.”
And please don’t stop asking, because your hope gives me hope.