There’s a particular habit we humans seem to have that always gets under my skin. It’s the “How are you?”/“I’m fine” interaction. You know what I’m talking about, right?! That way we ask the question — “How are you?” — without really caring about the response.
We’re simply asking it out of habit, or because we think we should, or because we don’t know what else to say and silence doesn’t seem like an okay option. And for those of us on the responding end, it too often doesn’t really feel like we can tell the truth.
“Fine” really feels like the only “nice,” cordial response allowed.
What does “fine” even mean? Fine, as in, “I’m coping.” Or fine, as in, “I’m pretty good.” Or fine, as in, “I freaking suck.” Perhaps we can tell by the tone in which the person replies?
So, why don’t we actually tell the truth? “I’m really pissed off right now and doing my best to cope.” Or, “OMG I’m so happy; I had the most amazing thing happen today!” And why does it seem so hard to take the time and space to listen, to really want to know how someone is honestly doing?
A couple years ago, pre-COVID, I witnessed the most heartwarming, honest exchange between strangers at Zeitgeist Coffee in Pioneer Square. It was the middle of winter, and there had been a huge snowstorm. The barista taking the man’s order after me asked him the usual question: “How are you doing today?” And he said, “It’s actually been a really hard day. A hard week.”
He told his truth! And the barista, she didn’t give that blank-look, head-nod response of “Bummer. What do you want to order?”
She said, “I’m so sorry to hear it. What’s made it so hard?”
He shared how he had had no electricity for five days in those freezing temps! And with so much snow and ice, he hadn’t been able to get out either — he’d been feeling really alone and trapped. I watched as she stayed with him, listening with her heart. I watched as his body softened, as a small smile appeared on his face and he warmly said, “Thank you.”
This barista touched him (and me, a peeping bystander) in a truly meaningful way. Real caring trumped the regular, inconsequential habit of “How are you?”/“Fine.” Three minutes of honesty had a deep and positive impact.
This memory still gives me hope. Hope that we can all find the courage to be more honest and vulnerable, to care and share with one another from our hearts.
My sense is that the more we let ourselves be human (in all the ways we are so human), the more we give others permission to do the same.
Piper Lauri Salogga is a transformational coach, writer and teacher supporting her clients in co-creating love within themselves and with each other. Find her work at beautyofbeinghuman.com.
Read more of the Aug. 16-22, 2023 issue.