How are you?

I tend to tense up when I hear that question. What I frequently want to say is, ‘I am not doing well at all. I’m exhausted, I’m stressed, there’s so much drama in my life. My legs hurt and and I really need to sit down. I’m just struggling.’ But that’s not what many people want to hear. In fact, lots of people will stop in their tracks when you give them an answer other than, say, ‘fine thanks’ or ’well and you?’

Sometimes people are asking as they genuinely care how one is. Frequently, however, enquiring after someone is merely a social nicety. And you can’t always tell the difference! That something so nice and positive and supportive has become a formality is pretty sad. And there are added layers of meaning for disabled people.

This question, concerned with health as it is, can be a point of tension for PWD. Because we’re often not fine, and that’s generally not something abled people want to hear about. Not that many people want to know what’s really going on in other people’s lives anyway, all that is deep and dark and personal, but this is particularly true for disability. Disability is held to be unpleasant, not something you want to hear about, and also it’s considered kinder to avoid the subject for fear of distressing the poor disabled person.

I was having a chat about this recently with the lovely Dorian of Dorianisms. He pointed out that ‘how are you’ as polite and meaningless is particularly baffling to his non-neurotypical self. ‘I respect the value of polite, ritualized words. But that one in particular is odd, b/c it takes the same form as an honest inquiry after well-being could. And I don’t know how to tell the difference.’ It’s a matter of having to have learned this social script and then finding out that it doesn’t always mean what one has been told. That’s confusing, and it’s more unnecessary work the neurotypical world requires of non-neurotypical people.

I’m not saying that being asked how one is can’t be a nice experience, or be conducted with nice intent. I can really appreciate my friends asking about what’s going on for me, it’s lovely to be thought of. It’s just that there are so many things going on here.

A couple of years ago, when it got too much, I was in the habit of just talking at people who asked me how I was. I just threw lots of words at them so that they wouldn’t realise I wasn’t answering their question. At present, a favourite response of mine to ‘how are you?’ is ‘because I was born, and I continue to be alive. What kind of a question is that?’ Yes, I know, I have an odd sense of humor. Sometimes when I’m feeling poorly I answer properly, but then I get the looks of disconnection or pity; I’m not sure which is worse. And if I respond with a chirpy ‘fine and you?’ it sounds odd if my health issues come up later in the conversation. I worry that the incongruence might make some think I’m faking, and there are enough people who think that of chronically ill people already! I don’t like to lie, and I really don’t like being expected to lie in order to keep things smooth and social. Alternatively, I frequently wonder if some people aren’t asking me out of concern or even habit, but for gossip fodder. I don’t like my personal experiences to be open to that sort of thing. And sometimes I just don’t want to talk about how I am. I have so much to deal with that I’d rather not think about it while I’m trying to be social, even as ‘how I am’ is making me struggle to be social.

I was in the habit some months ago of not asking PWD ‘how are you’ lest they think I was being intrusive about their health, and now I am thinking of moving back to that. In any case, I am trying to remember to be conscious about how I say it: to mean it when I do, using appropriate phrasing for that particular person, and to refrain where it’s not welcome.

The prevalence of this social custom is simply another nod to abled preferences at the expense of our own. I’ve got a lot more reason to keep my mouth shut about my private medical concerns than an abled person who has just had the flu. If we don’t participate satisfactorily in this seemingly (to abled people!) perfectly innocent and polite cultural norm, it’s another manifestation of our being difficult; we’re bad cripples. All in all, this trifling pleasantry can be pretty loaded. And we’re often expected to share, and only the right about, on abled terms.

Related: Ask Me No Questions and I’ll Tell You No Lies and the comments of Some snappy answers for your stockpile.

[Cross-posted at ZatB]

22 thoughts on “How are you?

  1. Sometimes it goes kinda like this: I’ll say I’m fine because I’m not really that interested in talking about how I feel. The currently non-disabled person, who knows that I am disabled and in pain, peers and asks again, “How are you really?”

    Sigh. Fine. So I tell them. Then they get all sad. It’s so awful, how I am really. Now I get to deal with them being upset and reassure them that my life is actually pretty good and not unrelentingly shitty except I leave out the bit where I’m thinking please stop being sad at me it’s exhausting.

    And then they ask if there’s anything they can do to help. I have learned that saying “Yes! I need help getting the cat box scooped every day and doing laundry and [all the other household shit that doesn’t get done] can you do any of that?” gets laughed off because obviously I’m joking. I’m not joking. I really need help doing those things.

    “Nah,” I say, smiling. “I’m okay, thanks.”

  2. My quick-but-honest answer to that question is usually “Surviving.”

    I often face another aspect of the problem when getting “how are you?” from friends that I know are asking with the deeper meaning (rather than just the social nicety). And that is that much of the time I don’t have the spoons to give them an honest assessment, or just hurt too much to bear actually stating out loud how miserable I am.

    So again I fall back on “surviving.” It serves well in both cases. It lets the cashier at the store know that not everyone is “fine, thank you!” while not forcing more information on her than she was looking for; and it lets my real friends know that things could be better, but I don’t really want to go into it right now.

  3. A lovely post! And not just because I’m quoted. Though there is that.

    Lately I have been answering that question with “I’m not doing too badly, and yourself?”. It satisfies those just looking for a ritualized response, and if people are genuinely concerned they will often ask for clarification.

    Plus, it’s pretty much always true. Rarely am I in the absolute pits (and when I am my answer tends to change to reflect that).

  4. I suppose when people ask “How are you?” they are not inquiring as to your current condition, but rather are testing whether you are able/willing to put forth and maintain a socially-acceptable facade. You can pass or fail: responding with trivial niceties means that you are willing to be read as an object, and responding with a description of your current condition means that you are not able or willing to quash your own sense of self and experience and true being for the sake of outside people’s continued comfort in ignorance (or not aware that people are asking it of you).

    What you are communicating, then, is your familiarity with the script and ability to play on that level. Your skill at the game designed around abled folks’ needs, preferences and comfort levels.

    I’ve gotten pretty good at that game, but I have had to practice over years’ time to get the script down pat, to the point that I can follow it with little energy — because it takes energy to engage on a genuine level, and I’d rather not give up that energy for the sake of a random person in line at the bank or grocery store.

  5. Ricky Buchanan (of ATMac fame) wrote this about this very subject a few years ago.

    What about when you answer “I’m fine” or something like that, and they force the issue with “you don’t look/sound fine”?

  6. This one really got to me a lot the year before last, since the answer was invariably a combination of “depressed” and “my dad is dying, what do you think?” I was mostly continuing to function day-to-day, so that was good, but otherwise–no. And people don’t want to know, beyond the one-word “good!” or equivalent.

    One of the things that interested me when I was studying Russian was that the expected response was much more neutral-to-negative than in English. Instead of “good, great, fine, well” it was more typically “not bad, so-so, normal/okay.” It didn’t feel quite as pressuring, anyway. And giving an actual explanation is more socially acceptable.

  7. Whenever I ask this question, I’m actually interested in hearing the answer; even if whoever I’m asking is having the worst day ever, but I don’t expect someone to tell me everything if they don’t want to discuss it. I don’t ask to be instrusive or nosey, I ask because I genuinely care.

  8. hi

    thanks for posting. this is a big topic for me and my chronically sick friends.

    the truth is complicated for most folks, i think, and definitely for me. i try and surround myself with people who value honesty so i don’t feel pressured in my personal life to put a facade in front of my veil of constant physical pain and discomfort. at the same time, i often feel happy, optimistic and excited regardless of what’s going on with my body.

    i’m a bit of an over-sharer anyways, so woe betide the person who asks me what’s up and doesn’t want an answer! you may get information about the movie i’m directing, or deets on how i almost died of anaphylaxis from a perfume exposure the other week, or how i got my ass beat by a beautiful butch at a play party. hey, you asked! if you didn’t want an honest answer you shoulda asked somebody else!

    and in the spirit of oversharing, i’m gonna post my chronic illness bill of rights. hope you enjoy it!

    xoox billie

    my chronic illness bill of rights


    to the full range of emotional responses to my experiences—from self-pity to gratitude and everything in between.
    to seek out information and advice from any source i can find.
    to follow or disregard any advice or recommendations i receive from strangers, friends and family, fellow sickos, books, or health practitioners.
    to seek relief or a cure, or not, as i see fit.
    to healthcare, including face-to-face visits with allopathic and alternative practitioners, prescriptions and supplements, assistive devices, fitness classes, and access to the information i need to make informed decisions about the potential risks and benefits of whatever i pursue.
    to any accommodations i need in order to have the option of participation in the public life of my community and the larger society.
    to define my level of availability to others based on how i feel and my assessment of my needs.
    to make plans and commitments with the understanding that i may be too sick to follow through on them.
    to address conflicts and disagreements in ways that honor the delicate relationship between stress and my well-being.
    to not be compared, favorably or unfavorably, with others who share any or all of my diagnoses.
    not to have to answer the question, “how are you?”
    to be appreciated for the contributions i make to my communities, even just by my presence.
    to be valued for who i am, not what i do.

  9. I think the “how are you” question actually does serve some social utility in situations where the people involved don’t know each other* – e.g., between a bank teller and customer – is that it’s a way for each party to acknowledge the humanity of the other person beyond the circumscribed role . It’s true that it’s not a context in which you’d expect the other person to tell you details of their life (though personally I don’t mind people unloading if they wish to), but it does give the person a chance to say something like “Oh man, we’ve been hammered with customers today,” for instance if they need to. Since I’m on the customer side of the interaction, I feel like I need to say something to acknowledge that the person on the other side isn’t just a rote employee machine waiting to do my bidding.

    * Which seems to me a somewhat different issue than the question of asking people who you do have a preexisting personal relationship with.

  10. I think my default to this question is a “fine-thenk-you” that is clearly by rote. Thereby paying some homage to the social niceties but also acknowledging that this question is generally not sincere, and if you want to know how I really am, you’ll have to ask a follow-up. Some people do and some don’t, and that’s fine. I actually kind of hate to self-evaluate in this way, as the real answer is usually something like “I was getting on with things, not thinking about how I am, and now that’s been disturbed.” But I realize no one means it as such.


  11. For me the question is not problematic because I think people don’t want to hear the real answer (or that they do, or that I can’t figure out which), but the question itself is difficult. If people insist on asking something like it, I’d prefer they be more specific, because the question as is, is something I can’t figure out (even though I by now KNOW what kinds of answers you’re supposed to give), and I’ll be stuck in all kinds of circular thoughts for a good while after being asked, even if I get to go through the whole thing as quickly as possible by using a scripted ‘fine.’

    The Dutch version of the question is even worse.

  12. It’s “Hoe gaat het?”
    Literally translated as “How goes it?”

    It makes even less sense and I’ll be stuck even more/longer with unstoppable thoughts racing, despite having a “goed” scripted for that one too.
    In comparison, I can ease myself out of “How are you” again much quicker.

  13. If I am having a bad day and someone asks me how I am, I tend to answer with “Would you like the polite/socially expected answer or the truthful answer?”.

    I find that people who don’t want to know the real answer tend to titter and then change the subject. People who are interested in how I really am, say so.

    Works for me.

  14. Thanks for pointing out how the question assumes a nondisabled world view. I get the question most often at my pool, where the majority of us have one or tow or twelve impairments. The truth would be acceptable, but we also want to get in the water before the next class. I’ve found “breathing” or “here” to be answers that are always true and generally get a sympathetic face or rueful laugh.

  15. I too find this question problematic, and over the years I’ve developed a few stock answers.

    “I am functioning within [my] normal parameters.” (Trekkies get the joke; others just look bemused.)

    “As well as can be expected.”

    “Do you really want to know?”

    “Shit. How are you?”

  16. I have a friend who just answers her own question. For example:

    Me: How are you?
    Her: Wow, what a beautiful day it was yesterday, huh? I went with a friend to the gardens and we soaked it all in.

    It’s not something you even notice right away because she’s still being conversational.

  17. Yeah, I find that to be useful too, hsofia – between “Loving the sun!,” “Sick of this rain!,” “Glad it’s Friday!” and “Can’t believe it’s Monday!” I find I usually have something inane to say in answer to “How are you” that is both truthful and unrevealing.

  18. Something touching related to “How are you?” happened this week. The cashiers in the school cafeteria/food court thing ask it by rote, and unless you know them, they don’t really care or notice.

    But one woman who works at the grill place (best sandwiches!) … well when she asked me as she gave me my order, I felt it was more than rote. She had a real smile on her face, and it was a sign that she remembered me and my unchanging order. Who knows, maybe she wouldn’t have been angry at the truth (most like “hungry!”) but I just smiled and said fine.

    I’m a loner, and my friends don’t ask unless they want to know. Same with family (distant). And since we’re not testing to see if we know social rules, the truth is fine! Plus, I always make them laugh, which matters more.

    Though I remember one Monday last fall (fall ’08) I was bouncy with happiness in my first class and didn’t wait for the “how are you/how was your weekend” to blare out my happy news that I’d found the Arabic song I’d been looking for!

    As for asking the question, I remember a couple/few weeks ago I asked a stranger that and was shocked after. Why did I do that? But no, I don’t normally ask just so I can get a canned response.

  19. After many years of blocking myself from feeling anything (due to PTSD and depression) and just going through the motions of what I was supposed to feel, I finally started paying attention to cues, like if my stomach is growling I must be hungry and if I’m crying I must be sad. And then I worked in therapy on actually tuning in to my feelings and sensations, both physical and emotional. When asked how I was doing, I would literally stop, pause, check in with myself, and answer honestly. Now, I didn’t do this with, say, the guy at the check-out counter or the receptionist at the doctor’s office. But with friends, family, and obviously my therapist. So I learned how to answer that question honestly, and now I’ve learned to know what I’m feeling even before someone asks. And sometimes I feel like sharing, and do; and sometimes I’d rather not so I say something generic and vague like “hanging in” or “okay”.

    For awhile after I got really sick, after years of only being moderately sick, it was hard for me to answer “how are you” questions honestly because I was still adjusting to my new reality and it was just too depressing to acknowledge all the time. So I used “hanging in there” as a sort of a code phrase – people who knew me well could read from the tone of my voice what I really meant and people who didn’t know me well could just pass it by.

    Now I pick and choose my responses more easily. If I’m feeling particularly honest on a bad day, I might even answer the question to an employee in a store with “well, frankly, I’m not good today, but how are you?” [BTW, I’ve found that immediately turning the question back on the other person often prevents them from inquiring any further if you don’t want them to!]

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