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Stop saying,"How are you?"

Posted on November 11, 2020
Two neighbors talking as they run into one another. Older men, one with a bicycle

I came across a CNBC article from May of 2019 and it brought me be back to high school when a classmate complained that people were hypocritical when they asked, “How are you?” She worked in a wine and cheese shop frequented by locals and tourists. As has been common courtesy for quite some time, customers would place their basket of yummy items on the counter and ask, “Hello, how are you?” and she would respond honestly, “My back is killing me today,” or “I slept horribly because my parents had a huge fight and screamed at each other until two this morning.” She was stunned, frustrated, and angered when these strangers looked at her in silence conveying, they were only being pleasant, not really interested in the truth. She railed at the hypocrisy of the question and the expected response.

We all do it. We ask, “How are you?” to the barista at Starbucks, the grocery clerk at the ACME, neighbors as we pass on the sidewalk, and even our colleagues, and we usually are not looking for anything other than, “Fine, how are you?” And our expected response should be, “Great.” However, I think the pandemic has changed things and it’s time we no longer ask a rhetorical question to which we really don’t want the answer. In these times, people are struggling, they are hurting, there has been loss, there is fear and loneliness, and we know that while there have been bright spots along the way, most people are not “great.”

So, back to the CNBC article entitled, "Stop Asking How Are You? Harvard Researchers Say This is What Successful People Do When Making Small Talk.” In the Harvard study, the researchers found that people who asked more direct questions were perceived to be more caring and engaged. No surprise. So, what kind of questions should we ask? Below is a short list that demonstrates your willingness to engage, BUT by asking these questions, you are opening the door to a conversation, which should be the goal. In many cases, in order to ask more meaningful questions, you have to be observant, so you can find a ways to connect. This means remembering things about your neighbor, noticing pictures or awards, etc. in your colleague’s office, or something about the store clerk who has waited on you multiple times.

Some potential questions that aim to engage:

  • Did you do anything fun over the weekend?
  • Do you have any fun plans for the weekend?
  • Do you have a long shift today?
  • Will you be spending Thanksgiving with your family?
  • I see you have kids, how has the virtual/remote learning been for you and them?
  • Once this is over, where would you like to travel?
  • You won the X award, congratulations – tell me more about it.

When you approach a complete stranger, it is likely impossible to find a connection in that split second, so instead of saying, “How are you,” say, “Good morning. Have a good day” or “Lovely morning, isn’t it?” And to that store clerk, how about, “Good afternoon. Thank you for ringing up my groceries.”

We were already a society where we are wedded to our smart phones and tablets, often sitting across from loved ones in silence as we check to see how many likes our more recent Instagram photo has garnered or who has said what ridiculous thing in one of your 10 group chats. Add in the pandemic, we communicate with colleagues and friend primarily through our computers, we even attend funerals and weddings on Zoom. Our human contact is limited, so make the most of the human contact we do have. Be intentional. Engage. Be interested in those around you, you never know the impact your couple minutes of engagement might actually have.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Dean, the Graduate College
Assistant Clinical Professor & Dept. Head, Goodwin College
Drexel University

P.S. As the daughter and a niece of World War II Veterans, THANK YOU to all who have and currently serve our country.

Posted in interpersonal-communications