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How Are You?

When you ask that question, do you listen to the answer?

As someone who struggles with some sometimes-discouraging health issues, I have learned a hard lesson: Not everyone really wants to know how I’m doing, even if they ask how I’m doing.

With recent discussions on what constitutes honesty, I have reflected on the sort of predicament I’m in when this question is asked. It’s pretty clear that a lot of times when someone asks, “How are you?” it’s more because it’s habit, a mindless greeting. Many times, the question is asked in haste, when time or circumstances won’t allow for anything more than an “okay” or a “fine.” Usually, if I say I’m okay, that means I’m not doing great, but I’m hanging in there. “Fine” is often really a lazy response as well. Neither is a completely dishonest answer, but I hesitate to be forthright about specifics or opening my heart unless I know the person asking genuinely wants to know. Of course, I don’t want to be going around complaining every time the question is asked (because I rarely feel great); sometimes, however, I could use a bit of emotional support. When it comes to chronic illness, the emotional challenges are often as difficult as the physical challenges.

I think of others who have other potentially draining challenges: those who are divorced or who have lost a spouse; those who grieve the loss of a child; those who aren’t able to have children; those who are single and yearn for marriage and family; those with wayward family members. The list could go on. These kinds of challenges can’t be alleviated by a casserole or a phone call, as appreciated as such service is. People with challenges that don’t go away have needs that don’t go away, and while each must learn how to turn to the Lord for their ultimate source of help, it helps to have loving support of people who are sensitive and aware and willing to lend a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on.

How grateful I am for the people who will ask “How are you?” with genuine concern, creating a conversational environment where I know that I can say, “Do you really want to know?” — and who really do want to know. Others might ask follow-up questions to delve beyond my pat answers. On the other hand, how hard it is when I feel that any answer besides a “fine” or “OK” will be an imposition or inconvenience on the person asking. Other times, I get the sense that people are afraid to ask a heartfelt question for fear of prying. Perhaps I’m unique, but I’d rather have someone care and ask than avoid asking to somehow protect my personal space.

“In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.” (Hymn 220) Loving listening is a simple yet profound form of service that I think we as Relief Society sisters could offer more often. So next time you ask, “How are you?” be sure to take the time to listen. Seek for the Spirit and, as guided, ask questions that show you really want to know how things are. You might be the answer to someone’s silent plea for support and solace.

God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs. Therefore, it is vital that we serve each other (Spencer W. Kimball, The Abundant Life, ? Ensign, Oct 1985, 3).

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Alison Moore Smith August 15, 2007, 6:10 pm

    What a great post, Michelle!

    I was thinking about this very thing as I read more of the book yesterday.

    Another, similar question is, “How many kids do you have?” when you’re in a situation where you have lost some. Not everyone you just barely met wants (or needs) to know your traumatic maternal history.

    Those details are best saved for closer relationships and more intimate settings. I’m glad for casual conversation, but, as you said, it’s also nice when there are those who are are willing to hear “the truth” when you really need to lay it out there.

  • facethemusic August 16, 2007, 2:36 pm

    Well spoken, Michelle.

    I think it’s very much like you said. The people who are close to you are generally the ones who really DO want to know how you are- while casual acquaintences are just asking the question as a matter of course in standard salutational conversation. (so– is salutational a word? Di d I just make up a word?)

  • mlinford August 16, 2007, 3:20 pm

    Actually, Tracy, what has sometimes been hard is that even sometimes those close to me get caught in the habit-but-don’t-really-know-how-to-deal-with-anything-but-“fine” mode. It’s not just casual acquaintances who do. And sometimes more casual acquaintances are more willing to listen, so there isn’t always rhyme or reason to it.

    I actually think it’s a sort of skill that can be developed, which is part of why I wrote this post. Being on the needing end has helped me be more sensitive to the asking side of things and I think has helped me develop the skill more. I won’t ever let an “OK” slide me by, and usually I will follow up on a “fine” as well.

    As my high school buddy used to say, “fine” is what you say when you are sick and someone asks how you are feeling, or what you say when someone asks how they look and instead of saying “awful” you say “fine.” 🙂

    Or my friend who says that fine stands for
    I (can’t remember, actually, but you get where this is headed)

    Or one last example: A sweet friend of mine who struggles with lots of health things asks how I am. I say, “fine” and she smiles knowingly and says, “Yes, I know. You are part of the ‘I’m fine’ club”…those of us who always feel yucky but usually can function and are good at answering the question “How are you?”

    So there you have it. More pontificating from a member of the “I’m fine” club. 😐

  • jennycherie August 16, 2007, 3:37 pm

    I don’t know if I’ve mentioned here yet or not, but I have been working as a cashier at wal-mart for the last four months or so (and just 2 more days left!). As such, I have to make small talk with a LOT Of people. I’ve noticed that “how ya doin'” is often really a substitute for a greeting where no real response is expected except for an acknowledgment of some sort. That being said, as the line of customers moves by me, it just seems natural to ask each customer how they are doing. I feel that if I am not chatty (when they are receptive to chatty!), I will seem unfriendly which is not a good trait for a cashier. That being said, I am frequently amazed at the people (who are nearly all complete strangers to me) who answer “how are you tonight?” very frankly, honestly, openly and thoroughly! I don’t mean it unkindly, more that it never ceases to amaze me the great variety of personality that Heavenly Father has placed on this planet! There are many who will always answer, “fine, and you?” and just as many who will say, “well, I’d be a lot better if I these darn hemorrhoids weren’t acting up!”:shocked: And of course the ones who look at a particular item they are purchasing (usually a pregnancy test or box of condoms) and just smile (how do you THINK I am?). I do try to avoid the question if the customer is in the store after midnight purchasing only a box of tampons or sanitary napkins. Asking, “how are you” under those circumstances is surely asking for a suitable flogging courtesy of PMS!:shamed:

  • kiar August 16, 2007, 4:16 pm

    I like to think of that as boarding the TMI train! (Too Much Information!) I was told in my patriarchial blessing that I am here to “listen to others” I remind myself if that every time I am in a public place and someone comes out with a story about thier life that is entirely TMI! Every time I get cornered, I paste a polite smile on my face and think “CHOOO CHOO… all aboard!” (my husband says its because I am too nice, and I look like soemone who cares. Darn this sweet spirit!

  • SilverRain August 16, 2007, 4:46 pm

    Try living in Germany for awhile. It will cure you of the “how are you/fine” habit.


  • mlinford August 16, 2007, 5:08 pm

    Explain more. I’m curious.

    Jenny, I sometimes am the TMI kind of stranger, because I like to chat. And kiar, believe it or not, sometimes anonymous chatter can help a lot because it’s non-threatening, so keep being a good listener! 🙂 Just my two cents’ there….

    I also appreciate cashiers who are friendly, so keep it up! 🙂

  • SilverRain August 16, 2007, 5:17 pm

    Let’s just say, especially among the older crowd, “Wie geht’s?” is an invitation for acutely thorough physical descriptions. You quickly learn to ask it only if a) you really want to know and b) you have several hours of time or c) you can’t understand what they’re saying, anyways.

  • east-of-eden August 17, 2007, 9:36 am

    Bulgaria is the same way…the “how are you question” is a loaded one, you have to be prepared for whatever comes out.

    But more seriously, I really apprecaited this post. In this last year as I’ve dealt with a host of my own special issues, there have been times when I have wanted some one to really care to hear more than the fine. I think all of us in some ways are like this, there are times when we need a listening ear more than others.

  • mlinford August 17, 2007, 2:39 pm

    I just talked to my husband about this last nite and he confirmed the idea that some people pride themselves on “not prying.” How many of us would mind if someone asked a follow-up question when we give a vague answer? My experience has been that no one is offended when I ask a follow-up. If they still give the run-around, then I can know it’s best to leave it alone.

  • heather August 18, 2007, 12:20 am


    I really appreciate your article. I also smiled at all the responses. Jennycherie, I smiled at your response. I think you really are tactful and clever with knowing how to react! I wonder if I would be the same.

    mlinford, I am so greatful that someone has discussed this. I believe that before any of my trials, I hardly gave a listening ear to anyone – I was quite selfish and blissfully ignorant. However, I can truly say that now, no matter who or what circumstance, I try very hard to show someone I truly care and hope they are well. I am also a little leary about prying –but– 9 times out of ten, women want to share information if they know they can trust you and feel they can bond a little. Many men (Like my Father) couldn’t possibly volunteer info, it would give them ulcers. 😉

    I believe that on the other side, people are constantly greeting one another with not just waves but hugs and sincere interrest. I never use to be the kind of person to bond with close proximity but now I sometimes can’t help it. I hug everyone practically. Especially when I was a teacher, I hugged all chidren and a lot of the parents. (Some you can totally tell by the look on their face wheather it is a good idea or not!) But 90% of the time, again, I have seen it to be so wonderful!

    Again, thanks for helping us think deeper into who we are and how to reach others to show we care!

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