Don’t Ask

How often do we casually ask someone we encounter how they are? Passing a casual acquaintance in the grocery store isle, the nearly universal greeting is to ask how they’re doing. Run into an old classmate you haven’t seen in a few decades who has their arms full of kids and is clearly on their way somewhere, and we ask how they’ve been. I know I’m guilty of it, and I’m pretty sure almost everyone else is too. This kind of callous or ignorant questioning needs to stop. We don’t really want to hear about our former classmate’s recent divorce and the ensuing financial difficulty. We don’t really want to know about how our co-worker is beside himself trying to figure out how to help a suicidal teenage daughter. They don’t want to hear our side of the story either.

Nobody’s life is boring enough to answer that question in a few syllables; and in reality, nobody really wants to answer it regardless of how much time you have to talk. The truth is, nobody can honestly say “fine” or “good” without perjuring themselves. Life is complicated. Those answers are not. However, those answers are the only socially acceptable variety.

When someone asks me that question, they aren’t really interested in hearing about how much I hate my job. They don’t have time to hear about the struggles I’m having raising my kids. They aren’t really interested in the difficulty I’m having with various medical issues. They don’t want to be faced with the reality of a midlife crisis in the makings. In short, they don’t really want to know how I’m doing. It would take too much time and emotional capital to listen, and then they would feel bad about being powerless to help. All people really want is to hear that you’re “fine” and then move along in their bubble of blissful ignorance.

Occasionally, someone actually does care, but then there is a different problem. Almost no one actually wants to talk about how they are doing. It’s depressing to think about it honestly. Even more than the people asking, I don’t want to think about how I’m doing. Life is easier when I can plug along mechanically without spending time thinking about things I can’t change. I’m happier when I don’t think about the things that make me unhappy. If you ask me how I’m doing, I have to ask myself; and the answer that returns isn’t often reassuring or comforting.

I suppose I could do the routine thing and mechanically answer “I’m fine,” but doing so makes me miserable because I know it’s at best a mischaracterisation, and more frequently an outright lie. Lying makes me even more miserable. I’d rather not do that.

I could tell the truth, but when you answer with any variant of “not good,” people instinctively ask why. Nobody (including myself) has the time or even the capacity to talk through complex and intractable problems then come out on the other end feeling better. In fact, it generally just makes everyone involved feel worse. Besides, the people asking are dealing with their own challenges, and life struggles shouldn’t be a competitive sport. They Don’t need to be weighed down with what I’m facing, and I don’t need to feel like you are trivializing my difficulty by sharing how much harder yours have been. You can’t compare pain and suffering, but that’s exactly what we tend to do when people start honestly talking about how they are doing.

So… After that rant… Can we please stop asking each other about how we are doing. It’s none of your damn business, and you don’t really want to know anyway.

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