Hi. How Are You?
During one of my solo days wandering the streets of Europe, I did some shopping. As I entered the stores, clerks almost always greeted me with the cursory hello in Dutch. Grateful that nearly every Dutch native speaks English, I would answer in my only fluent language, “Hello. How are you?” In one particular store, the brief conversation that ensued from this familiar greeting still has me pondering something profound.
“Where are you from?” inquired the pleasant sales associate in response to my returned greeting.
After admitting to my American citizenship, she replied, “Yes, I know you are from America. But from where in the United States.”
I laughed, asking her if my identity as an American tourist was that obvious. She smiled, “Actually, no. It was your greeting, Hello. How are you? that gave you away. Only Americans say that.”
Her comments immediately conjured up the memory of my paternal grandfather. We never lived in the same state as my dad’s parents, so phone conversations with them were a common occurrence. Each time I got on the phone with Grandpa, I would enthusiastically say, “Hi Grandpa!” to which he would respond, “Fine, fine. And how are you?” Every time. Without fail. That is how our conversations began. Upon asking my dad why Grandpa always responded that way, he explained that Grandpa did not hear well and simply assumed that my greeting matched his, i.e. Hi. How are you? Therefore, in his response, Fine, fine. And how are you?, Grandpa presumed to be answering my question and returning the greeting. The whole repeated and predictable exchange became an endearing family joke.
But then, my mind reached beyond sweet family memories into the troubling reality of this greeting. Hi. How are you? tumbles mechanically from my lips, and the lips of others, to not only family and friends but strangers and passersby. In fact, this has-become-rote greeting seems to have found its way into phone solicitation scripts. Perhaps you have experienced it. The exchange usually goes something like this:
I pick up the phone to, “Hello Mrs. Warren, how are you today?” Insert an eye roll as I mumble to myself, Oh great, a solicitor. Why did I answer the phone? before I begrudgingly respond, in a somewhat irritated tone of voice, “Fine. How are you?” Then, the solicitor, far too courteously and enthusiastically, responds, “I am well. Thanks for asking.”
Honestly, am I really fine, and does she even care? Or worse, is she really well and do I even care? Pushing further (allowing myself to feel the discomfort of this ponderance)…how often, walking through the grocery store, do my eyes meet a stranger’s compelling me to greet them, lest I be perceived as rude, “Hi. How are you?” But I don’t miss a beat, or even wait for a response, as I continue past the milk towards the eggs. The question is…the hard and painful truth…do I really want to know how she is? Do I even care?
So the outwardly kind and caring – although inwardly unconcerned and preoccupied – interchange plays and replays over phone lines, between grocery store aisles, at doctor’s offices, across college campuses, in office hallways, etc., and still no one really knows how you are or confesses how he is.
So, I’m thinking about it, my customary greeting, and I’m challenged… Is there, potentially, a more powerful question? A better possible gateway into the heart and mind of our fellow man? How are you? Really? Beyond the exterior. In your heart, your mind, the very essence of your being. In areas and matters that mean the most to you.
What if I really told you how I am? Perhaps you could shine some light into my dark places. Maybe, my honesty would free you to be honest, too. And together, we might lift each other’s heads. Look up. See Hope. OR what if I stopped at the yogurt (you know, between the milk and the eggs in the grocery store aisle) and waited to hear your answer to my question. And if you honestly answered, and I honestly listened, maybe you could know that someone really does care how you are. Better yet, that there is a God who loves you. Maybe, just maybe.
So, I’m thinking about it, my customary greeting, and I’m challenged…challenged to either seriously ask the question and wait, hoping for and welcoming an honest response, OR cease asking the question at all.