An IM notification from a colleague pops up on your laptop.
“Hi, how are you?”
[Thinking: “I’m living through a pandemic and hate my life.” ] “Good, you?”
You scroll through the conversation history. This is the fourth time Samantha has asked you how you are… in the last 3 hours. You thought you were okay, but now you start to doubt yourself.
The scenario repeats itself. Again, and again. Samantha, then Peter, then Priya, then Jake… At the end of the day, because you’re you, you decide to tally up today’s “how are you”s.
23. Twenty-three times somebody asked you how you are. Twenty-three times they didn’t really want an honest answer. Twenty-three times you lied.
I’m waging war against “how are you?”
“Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”Mahatma Gandhi
In case you haven’t realised by now, the “you” in my story is me. But I’m sure it’s also you. We’ve all lived through the torment of being asked how we are twenty-three (or more, I shudder to think) times.
I’m here to start a revolution. We’re going to war. Our enemy is the most useless phrase in the English language. There are no 3 more frustrating words in our day-to-day communications than “how are you?” Prove me wrong.
I’d typically consider myself a pacifist, so let’s get into why I’m leading this violent uprising against these 9 letters and their trailing, taunting question mark.
1. Do you actually care?
Let’s be honest. You don’t.
So why do we do it? In most cases, we’re aiming to be polite. Harvard researchers have determined that asking questions increases likability. You want to be liked because you know you’re about to ask for something.
Even if you do genuinely care, you should know that the words “how are you” are not anything more than pleasantry. And pleasantries are associated with inauthenticity. In most societies where English is the primary language, you’re unlikely to get an honest answer to the question.
If you genuinely care, you should care enough to ask a different question.
2. Put yourself in their shoes
While our friends at Harvard might be onto something, there are caveats. “How are you?” is one such caveat.
In a professional environment, where we’re pressed for time and inundated with IMs and emails, pleasantries can be frustrating and – quite simply – a waste of time. There’s a tacit understanding that “how are you?” is simply a precursor to a request or the real conversation topic. If we know that you want something from us, we also know that looking after our wellbeing was not the primary purpose for you reaching out.
I actually did count the number of times I was innocently asked the question the day before I wrote this article. That number was actually 23. And Samantha did ask me how I was 4 times in the space of the same IM conversation.
Would I have liked any of those people less if they hadn’t asked me how I was? No. In fact, I’d probably have liked them more for getting to the point.
I’m figuring that at least 40% of you by this point in the article have written me off as a rude, insensitive prick who doesn’t care about anybody’s wellbeing.
Fortunately, that’s only true on Mondays.
I’m all for building rapport and love to be liked just as much as the next person. I simply feel that there are better ways to do this than “how are you?” immediately before asking for a favour.
Here’s what we can do instead:
- Contact someone without an ulterior motive. Preferably by phone or, even better, over a cup of coffee. If you’re chatting to someone only to find out how they are, it’s pretty difficult for them to resent you for it.
- Ask more specific questions. Improve the authenticity of your communication by asking questions that are tailored to the individual and demonstrate a genuine interest. “How did your football game go on the weekend?” or “How are Jodie and the kids?” are both infinitely better options than “how are you?”
- Get straight to the point. In a professional context, especially over IM, there is nothing wrong with simply dropping the question altogether. We’re all busy young professionals, let’s get on with it. No hard feelings.
- Turn it into a statement. It’s not ideal, but if you’re intent on going with a pleasantry, I’d prefer if you didn’t force an answer out of me. “Hope your week is going well” is still a better alternative than “how are you?”
If you’re going to ignore me and do it anyway
While the rest of us are fighting arguably the most important fight of the 21st century, if you choose to bolster the ranks of our enemy and use “how are you?” anyway, I have only one request:
Please, for crying out loud, if you’re sending a “how are you?” via a work IM app, do NOT wait for a response before you actually ask for what you really want. PLEASE.
Join the uprising
It’s not easy starting a war. Personal sacrifices must be made. Friends may be lost. For a cause great enough, however, we know that that it is all worth it.
Today, we join the revolution. We rise up against those 9 useless letters and their jeering question mark.
I don’t think I could say it any better than Al Pacino: “I don’t know what to say, really. All comes down to today, and either, we heal as a team, or we’re gonna crumble. Inch by inch, play by play. Until we’re finished. We’re in hell right now, gentlemen. Believe me. And, we can stay here, get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell… one inch at a time.“
Are you with me?
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Christine Marais says
I couldn’t agree more! I die a little inside when I see someone start an IM off with “Hi” – I know you want something lets just get to it without having to have an entire conversation first. Another problem with this, personally, is that I am a bad texter/responder – if you take too long to get to your point I will probably get distracted and forget to reply.
Mark Atkinson says
I’m also terrible! I find myself completely ignoring people’s introductions/questions and diving right into an answer. I’m conflicted about whether to feel bad about this, haha…
Beverley Chadwick says
Absolutely with you! I can’t stand the false politeness. These three words are intrusive and an invasion of my privacy. If I don’t know you, I am not going to share the state of my health with you. The response you are likely to get is “What’s it got to do with you?” If I do know you, you had better be prepared to hear all about it.