Buttercup - Column for 8/17

Politely Personal

One of my very significant pet peeves is polite questions that no one really wants the answer to. I must smile and answer the question with a facile and simple non-committal answer; anything more is too much information varying from more than they wanted to hear to the seriously personal. The top of the overly personal polite question list is "How are you?" followed by "Are you getting married?" and "Are you having kids?"

One of my major rebellions in high school was to always answer the question "How are you?" with a frank and honest answer. It was meant to point out just how shallow the question is when no one really wants to hear any response but "Fine." Why must we always be "fine" and why is it so impolite to respond any other way? If people don't really want to know how you are, why do they ask?

I'm told it is just a polite question so we should be polite with our response. But field tests suggest that the question is completely unnecessary and unduly invasive. I've found that the "Long time no see" works amazingly well as a polite conversation opener. It leaves the responder room to say anything from "Yeah" to "Oh, we've been building our dream house in Tahoe, and it has been absolutely crazy..." Likewise "What have you been up to?" can be responded to with "Not much" or "We just got back from Europe and it was fabulous."

The key difference between those conversational prompts and "How are you?" is that they prompt for factual information which can be edited by the responder as they see fit. More importantly, they can be forthcoming if they so choose. Which is not so with "How are you?" a question that probes into the mental or emotional state of the respondent, which they are patently not supposed to admit to. It is a cultural faux pas to declare your emotional or mental state to be anything other than "Fine". Claiming that you've been busy with your father's funeral implies that you are other than fine and is a far more detailed conversation than the monosyllabic formula. How we are is a very personal question. So why is it considered polite to ask?

The secretary at my doctor's office confided to me one day that a previous patient had made her uncomfortable about asking "How are you?" when they check in, since most patients in a doctor's office are not well. I tried to reassure her that it is a polite question, but my heart wasn't in it. The problem for her is that there isn't really anything she can substitute for the pat formula that doesn't come out bad for exactly the same reasons: "What have you been up to?", "Long time no see", "Nice to see you". Seeing me still reminds her of that conversation and she looks sheepish while she asks how I am, and I always say "Fine" just to be kind. But sometimes I think that "Hello, Buttercup," covers the bases nicely, with no discomfort. If I want a conversation, I can start it from my side.

I already know what happens if I try another response, such as "Miserable", "Depressed", "Satiated", or "Lethargic." Instead of making people realize how impolite they are for asking, I just seem rude for giving them so much personal information. But I find that I am more interested in and involved with people who don't ask me how I am when I run into them in the grocery store. Without the polite formula, we seem to have more to say.

Columns by Buttercup