Retiring the Question “How Are You?”

sloth-in-class_o_2156663A few days ago I noticed a link getting shared by multiple people on Facebook. Usually when I see more than one friend share a link, even if it’s about something I care nothing about–“Sloth Raises Really Fast Human Child!” (okay, fine, I’d read that for sure)–I’ll read it.

So I skimmed the article. It seemed like something that only applied to married people, so I ended up clicking on the sidebar article “Scientists Discover the Truth About Revenge Sex” instead, and I forgot about the original article.

But people kept linking to it over the next few days, so I went back and read it again. I’m really glad I did, because the post isn’t really about “The Questions That Will Save Your Relationships,” as the title indicates. It’s about conversations and connection. (Which, of course, also relate back to relationships.)

The key part of the article is the idea that we ask the wrong questions all the time. Because we’re lazy conversationalists with really bad habits. Here are the types of “conversation starters” the article addresses:

  • How are you?
  • How’s it going?
  • What’s up with you?
  • How was your day?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these questions. When we ask them, we mean well. We’re trying to show that we care.

But there’s a big disconnect between our intentions and the results. As the article says so well, “[You’re] asking the same damn empty questions you’ve always asked that elicit the same damn empty answers you’ve always gotten.”

So let’s stop asking those questions and start asking good ones. Specific ones. I mean, really, why do we use the same generic questions for every person we know? Every person is different, so why are we using the same exact question for everyone?

Here’s what I’m going to do, and I suggest you give it a try too: The next time I’m about to say, “How are you?” I’m going to ask the person something specific I know about them. Even if it’s really casual and low key–not every conversation has to be some big serious thing. But I’m going to treat that person as an individual by asking them something about them, not some generic question I could ask anyone. I’m going to show that I care about them specifically through the way I approach conversation with them, even if it’s just a few quick words.

What do you think about this idea? Is it worth pursuing?

10 thoughts on “Retiring the Question “How Are You?””

    • Thanks Kim! Do you have any tips for doing this? My only concern with the specificity idea I mention above is that it might take a few seconds to figure out a good, specific question.

      • It all depends on who you would like to talk to, why, and for how long. There are many people I work with that do the “how’s it goin'” thing. Every morning we do the “how’s it goin dance”. For maybe three or four mornings in a row this one guy and I would say the question and responses both at the same time so we agreed that every time we saw each other getting coffee we would agree to ask something else. So, now we ask, “how is your cat so and so” because we started to sound like robots every day. (We really now just ask about our cats. Too funny!)

        My tips would be ask, so what did you do last night? What have you got going on this weekend? That has always brought on a short but real conversation that brings a little bit of insight into each others lives.

        Or, if someone asks me how’s it goin’ I will try to answer in a real way.
        Like, WOW it has been some day! or I’m doing really GREAT and this is why.

        So, if you really wanted real tips, there you have it. 😉

        • Kim: I like the idea of asking what the person did last night or what they’re planning for the weekend. That level of specificity helps the person hone in on a real answer. Thanks for sharing that!

    • “Clockwork” is a good word for it, Dustin. For me, if I don’t want to get in a conversation but I also don’t want to say “how are you,” I think I’ll just say something nice about the person while I walk by (mixed in with cheery “good mornings” and the like).

  1. I loved this article! She not only touched on ALL the emotions that come with being a SAHM that you go through everyday, but she got much more philosophical with the whole “asking better questions” bit.

    Jeff and I always ask the “how was your day?” question when he got home, and we’d always get basically the same answers from each other. I’d want to answer almost exactly how she described her answer of her day at home, but would be too tired, so I’d just reply “fine, and you?”, and he’d usually say the same thing, or maybe go into a story or two about something funny his students did. But they never brought us any closer as husband and wife. I really like the idea of asking specific questions like she suggested to get to know more about whoever you’re talking to. I still don’t think starting off with “How are you?” is a bad thing, especially if you mean it. You should be able to tell when someone’s not actually “fine” or “good”, and ask them again, “No, REALLY, how are you?”, which might then lead into more insightful questions that you can follow with to make the conversation more personal instead of surface level. 🙂

    • Leandra: That’s a good point about “How are you?” I think it’s harmless as long as you follow up with something more specific to the person or to their answer. Like, if you say, “How are you?” and they say, “Fine,” you could follow up with, “What was the best part of your day?” or ask something specific about what they were doing that day. I really like the idea that these questions can bring us closer to the people around is instead of just staying at the same level or regressing by only asking somewhat empty questions and giving somewhat empty answers.

  2. I concur! Sometimes I use, “What’s new and exciting?” or try to remember something we talked about last time we saw each other to follow up on.

    I also try to avoid the question “what do you do?” as a default way to meet people. If they are passionate about their job and want to talk about it, it’ll come up. If they don’t define themselves by how they make money, it won’t. But I hate it as a default, we are not just money making machines!

    • I’m with you, Emma. I generally just like to avoid stock questions like that unless I really, truly want to know the answer. Usually at some point when I’m getting to know someone, I’m curious about their job, but sometimes it doesn’t even come up for a few conversations because there are so many other things that make a person interesting.

      I’m not a huge fan of “what’s new?”, though. I understand the intent behind it, but it’s actually a pretty broad question. I like to focus it on something specific that’s new: relationships, food, creativity, movies, games–what’s new for them in a specific category? It’s like the different between asking, “What have you be up to lately?” vs. “What were you up to this past weekend?” Giving a specific timeframe helps the person hone in on a specific answer, and the conversation can blossom outwards from there.


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