“How are you?” he asked in Arabic, his native tongue.
“Busy,” I relied with a quick smile.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t ask you what you are. I asked you ‘How is yourself.’ I want to know how is your internal self, your condition, your state of being. ‘Keif halik?’”
It occurred to me at that point that I was so used to the vagueness that surrounded this simple question (How are you?), and the ease with which it rolled off the tongue, it had become habitual for the one asking and the one answering to hide one’s self in its vagueness.
How are you? Three little words and a question mark. It’s a question we use all the time when we run into someone in the grocery store, in the office, in hallways, at social gatherings, in meetings etc. The question hangs in the air, waiting, but not really. We often ask without expecting much of an answer just like at the grocery store where the cashier asks “Did you find everything you needed?” without looking up and expecting none other than a positive “Yes”. But what are we really asking? Are we really asking because we want to know or are we asking out of trained politeness? Do we really care what the other person says? Do we actually expect them to answer the question? Do we expect them to answer truthfully or give the standard, “Busy,” or “Fine” or “Good! How’re you?” A quick nod and a smile, and then we each go our respective ways.
“How are you?” has become a ritualized greeting; just another way of saying “hello.” And because we live in an age where there is such stigma attached to failure and misfortune, we have to appear to be happy on cue. We are trained to put on a happy face, to answer with “great,” “busy,” or “you know, the usual,” regardless of how much pain or struggling we are going through. We have to remove that stigma so that those struggling, whether they are famous or not, are able to come forward when they are in a dark place, without fear that it will ruin their career or paint them as someone who is broken, crazy and just not trying hard enough.
But how did it all start for us to not answer truthfully? And is it the same in all cultures? I’m not quite sure it’s only an American optimism that easily embraces the automatic “fine.” The Armenians answer with “vochinch,” meaning “nothing,” or “neither good nor bad,” which is probably a remnant of years of Russian oppression when wretchedness was impermissible. Even Shakespeare, as far back as 1604, revealed the reluctance of his hero Othello to answer the question truthfully. Desdemona asks her husband, “How is’t with you, my lord?” and Othello replies “Well, my good lady.”… Even though he is half-mad with jealousy and only a few scenes away from murdering her.
Many of us are private and reluctant to tell others about the issues that disturb us. Even when we go to the doctor, we often minimize or fail to mention problems we are having. But why? Are we afraid to be helped? Are we afraid to admit that we have problems or do we have a lack of trust in old friends and new ones believing that no one really cares about what we say? The truth is that with an ever growing sense of depersonalization, we will never really know what’s going on in someone’s life behind his or her front of ‘happiness’ unless we are truly willing to listen to the response that goes into the depths of their state, their self.
He asked again, “Keif Halik?”
Asking questions isn’t only about the asking; it’s as much about listening and absorbing what the other person is telling you. He didn’t walk by with just a wave. He stopped to hear the answer. He listened to the tone of my voice and acknowledged my state of being. He was mindful. He was authentic. Plainspoken. Genuine.
It was my turn to give value to the question.