canstockphoto19028570It is part of society … civilized conversation … expectancy. You are expected to be ‘fine’, when some asks how you are. In some cultures/countries, the answer is not even voiced but rather substituted with the repeated question. Digging down to the core social etiquette, one can easily believe that we are not interested how the other person is. This is supposed to be an opener to start a chat, nothing more. So whoever dares to break tradition and say they are not fine might be asking for raised eyebrows. Why is s/he to draw attention to him/herself? However, why do we not start the conversation with a meaningless comment about the weather?

Henry, I suggest you stick to two subjects: the weather and your health.” ~ Mrs. Higgins (My Fair Lady, 1964)

Ah weather! That nice, ‘safe’ subject. We all experience it so it provides a nice denominator if a conversation threatens to fall still. But that is just it – we all experience it. So you can hardly lie about it as easily as we can ‘lie’ about our feelings. If the sun shines, the sun shines . Yet feeling good or bad is different to every individual. For instance, if a millionaire sees a dollar lying in the street, he might just shrug and move on – he has enough. If a poor person passes by that same dollar, their day might be saved. And now think of the child who lost that dollar on its way to get an ice cream. Each of these three individuals would have striking different answers to “How are you?” yet courtesy will most likely have each of them answer “fine”. And yet the sun shone all the time each of them experienced this dollar.

So why do we ask a question if we do not want to know the real answer? Those who answer truthfully when they are not feeling well should have a right to say so when asked. And yet more often than not the asker may become inattentive, even restless as the other does not content him/herself with an “oh well” or a “not so good”, but dives into a detailed recount. ‘Oh dear,’ the asker muses, ‘I have opened a can of worms.’ … and the other keeps on pouring their heart out. Yes, better repress that and stick to empty words … The asker did not request a reason to feel bad for someone after all; in fact, their perfect day might just have been overshadowed or it might have suddenly made an about-turn for the worse.

Creating space for the conversation

However, there is something else going on here as well. We believe what we sense (be this hearing, seeing, touching, etc.). Even if you are seemingly lying by saying ‘fine’, you are sending a message to your subconscious mind, that you are/expect to be fine – the notion of ‘fine’ reverberates in your body and you hear it as the sound waves hit your ear. We all know how laughter can lift our mood, even if we were glowering moments before. Just like the repetitive motion of laughter, a repeated ‘fine’ invites us to embrace the ‘fine’ and lift our spirits, even if it is but ever so slightly with every utterance.

Yet on another level, this seemingly empty question and answer game, enables the chatting partners to establish an atmosphere and/or get a feel for the current setup. The asker will probably not embark on a tricky question if the opposite is down or even hoarding attention. Likewise, it gives the latter the right to hold the asker at arms length, by not adhering to social ‘protocol’. You could nearly see the ‘protocolled’ question and answer short for “How are you with a little chat?” – “Fine, bring it on”.

The next time you find yourself in a ‘How are you- fine thanks’ situation, why not observe the interplay underneath the surface. Instead of just pressing ‘play’ on your social player, use it as a tool to help you both in the current circumstances. Whether this is to help another feel ‘fine’ or to explore and/or set the perfect stage for the chat that is to ensue.

Photo Credit:
(c) Can Stock Photo / mybaitshop