Hi, how are you?
- Such a challenging question, one might say. Someone else would say no, it’s a sympathetic question, or an encouraging question.
Such a simple, common, accepted greeting, another will say.
Which is it for you, as you are asking, or as you are asked?
Who is asking? Perhaps it is a friend you have run into after a long absence … one of whom you know little recent history, and who knows little of your own. Or perhaps it is your closest friend? Or a family member? Or a co-worker? A neighbor? Could it be your child’s teacher, a bank teller, a waiter or waitress, or a customer?
Four little words that might, in return be answered in so many ways.
The simple answer is, of course, “Fine. And you?” For the majority of people asking, that is the expected, appropriate answer. One hundred years ago, the answer may have been longer and more eloquent, but it would deliver the same essential note: “I am well, thank you for asking. And how is everything in your world?” I’m not sure when the notion of asking after someone’s wellness became the automatic greeting that it is today, but I am pretty sure that the expected response was a positive one, and has grown more and more brief through the decades. Today, it may be a text exchange “How R U?” ” ‘K. U?”
When someone is living with a chronic illness, the question may still be the same in intent, but the message delivered is not always the message received, and the same is true for questions. When one is focused on their own health issues, every question becomes a challenge. The answer is not as easily returned, or if it is given quickly as “Fine, and you?” it may evoke a pang of doubt, even guilt, from the person answering. Was the question just a social greeting? Does the one asking really want to know how the illness progresses? When it is asked on a good day, is the answer supposed to be different than on a difficult day? How much information is enough? How much is too much?
When the question is asked by a doctor, or a doctor’s assistant, the answer is expected to be more than the social response of “Fine.” But even in that personal arena, the time allocated for a patient may restrict a long, explanatory response. I remember once having an appointment with a doctor who always began with that question, but for whom I had difficulty remembering the symptoms I’d experienced since the last appointment. So, on the recommendation of a friend, I wrote out a list of symptoms and questions. When I took it from my bag, he took one look at it, asked me to find the one issue that was most pressing and that we could address in this appointment. Clearly he was not looking for a multi-faceted explanation.
Some people truly want to know how one is feeling. Others are simply saying hello in four words instead of one. It may change from day to day as well as person to person. And the energy and attention it takes to determine the depth of the question from each person on each day may not fit in the time allowed for a response. The easiest, if not the most honest or helpful, response is to say “Fine, and you?” **
Maybe one day we will return to the one word greeting. Until then, I wish each of you well in answering that question effectively.
**Note to the friends and family members who do really want to know how I am today: My back is a bit sore, and I feel like a nice walk would straighten it out. I’m noticing the curvature of the spine a bit more recently, as sweatshirt weather is here and I have to keep tugging to pull it straight (it seems to slide off toward my right often.) My mood is better this week than last, though my productivity is still lagging. I’m sleeping well, through the night, but having dreams so realistic that i ought to get up and write them down for story lines! I seem to be on a later sleep pattern, though, staying up later and rising later in the mornings. The melanoma surgery scar on my left arm is still tender, but the other scars are not noticed by me, and invisible to others with long pants now in season. I have totally written MS off my plate, but will see my neurologist in a few weeks and she will no doubt remind me that I do have the condition, and I will need to be careful of ice in the winter, as falling would not be advised with severe osteoporosis also on my chart. But besides all that, I’m fine, really. 🙂