WHAT DOES “How are you?” REALLY MEAN?
In today’s society "How are you?" is just another way of saying “Hi”. We’ve all had this typical conversation many times a day, and will do so even today: “Hey, how are you?” “Good, how are you?”
I hadn't realized, until Austin’s death, how three little words could have such an array of meanings and answers. I never gave the question much thought. I would simply respond, “Good, how are you?” And be on my way.
Today, when asked “How are you?” I think, “Are you just saying ‘Hi’ or do you want to know more? If you truly want to know more, then are you asking how I am compared to 6 months ago, 3 months ago, or two days ago?” In addition to my answer, there is usually an internal conversation going on. Here is just a glimpse of what you would hear, if you could read my mind.
“Do they know? If not, should I mention it?” If I haven’t seen the person since Austin’s accident, I will immediately start figuring out if I should mention it to them, or keep the conversation light. My decision is usually based on how well I know the person and if we are just passing each other in the school, store or fields, or if the conversation could turn to how my boys are and how Austin is. In fact, this happened just yesterday while shopping. I ran into someone I knew, but hadn’t spoken with in a long time. She asked how I was. I simply stated that I was doing well. We talked about school starting and how Wes and Matt were doing at school and how her kids liked the new school year. The entire time we were having this conversation, I was having a second conversation to myself, “She doesn’t know. This really isn’t the time or place to say anything. Does it matter right now? No, I won’t mention it unless she asks how Austin is. Oh, she will feel awkward when I answer that. Yeah, I won’t say anything unless I have to.” We finished our brief conversation, said, “Have a great day,” and went our separate ways.
“How do they want me to answer this question? Do they think I should be sad or depressed? Do they think I should not be sad? Do they want to know how I am doing, really, or are they just being polite? If I tell them that I am a little sad, will they take that as a blanket ‘feeling’ and tell others that I’m having a hard time, even though in 10 minutes my feelings may change – they just don’t know that? If I tell them I’m doing well, will they, again, assume that’s how I’m always feeling and tell others I’m doing great, even though in 10 minutes I may change my mind?” These are thoughts that go through my head if the person asking does know about Austin. In this case my thoughts will vary depending on who asks the question and the “tone” they use. Here’s just a glance at how I may answer and what may be going through my mind.
“Doing well.” While I’m also thinking, “I’m not going to the sad place that you may want me to go.” This is my reaction when the question is asked with a slight touch of ‘poor you’ in the tone. This is when the word ‘are’ has the emphasis on it and is drawn out slightly, like this, “How ARRRREE you?” My initial reaction is that they feel bad for me and think I should be feeling really down. I may be down at that moment, but I don’t want to stay there, so I will answer quickly and move the conversation to another topic. I do not like pity parties, or having people feel sorry for me. I do not want this person to hear I am sad at that moment and try to keep me there. Because my feelings change many times during the day.
“Fine”, while thinking, “You’re getting nothing more from me J” This is my reaction when the question is asked, with an ‘I know’ tone, by a friend or acquaintance. It sounds like this. “Ohhhh, how are yoouu?” When I hear this question I feel as though this person thinks they know how I am. They may be truly interested in how I am doing, but they also have a preconceived idea of how I should be feeling. If I say differently, such as I am doing very well, they will try to bring me to where they think I should be – which is not where I want to be. They may even add, “don’t be surprised if you feel….at some point.” To this I want to say, “Uh, no. I may or may not feel that way, at some point in time. But, I will not be thinking about it until that day comes. You may have friends that have felt that way, but, remember, I am a different person. I’ll wait and see. For now, I’ll just deal with how I feel today, which, by the way, may change before our conversation is even over.”
“OK, we have good days and tough days, but, ok.” while thinking” I can be honest, because you understand that this could change in 10 minutes and you won’t hold me to it.” They ask the question with the emphasis on ‘you’, “How are you?” This person really gets me. They are a very good friend, or even an acquaintance that just understands me. They realize that I am very resilient. I’m ok being sad for a bit, but I will move on to the next feeling very soon. They don’t try to hold me at any place, emotionally, according to their agenda. They just take me as I am.
“Good, how are you?” while thinking, “This is a beautiful day!” And as they walk away I think, “Hmmm…”
SHOULD I ANSWER THAT WAY?
Sometimes I’m feeling really good when someone asks “How are you?” And, for a minute, I think, “Oh, I should be feeling kind of down right now, but I’m not. I hope they understand.”
This happened to me on Austin’s birthday last week. I was surrounded by wonderful friends, who called or emailed to let me know they were thinking of me and knew I was probably having a difficult time. Some came over and helped me with a project and took me out to lunch. My friends and family truly made my day!
The interesting thing for me, though, was that Austin’s birthday was actually easier for me than a couple of the days I had this week. On his birthday, I was trying to get a birthday gift out to all of Austin’s friends, a gift that celebrated his life. In order to finish it I needed both my computer and printer, which weren’t cooperating – at all. One thing after another went wrong. First the main computer’s motherboard broke, then the printer broke, and then my other computer crashed while connecting it to my back-up printer. The new computer I bought (to replace the main computer) wouldn’t connect to my backup printer, I needed an updated driver. Once I got the back-up printer working on the new computer, the double-sided printing that I needed didn’t work – I kept getting black streaks on the back of the pages. During this challenge, my mind was more on the computer issues, then on what day it was. I just wanted to get my project done.
All of a sudden I started laughing, thinking, “Of course this would happen! Every time Austin started a project he would run into one problem after another. It’s fitting that this is happening while I’m trying to do a project celebrating Austin’s life. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that Austin was purposely sabotaging me (I could just hear him laughing…). The day, as far as being difficult because of it being Austin’s birthday, was actually on the lighter side, thanks to my wonderful friends and family and also to my obstacles.
The dilemma on Austin’s birthday was, when someone called to ask, “How are you? I know it has to be rough today.” I would think, “I know I’m ‘supposed’ to have a more difficult day today, but it truly doesn’t feel all that different than most other days. So what do I say? Do I answer the way people think I should feel? Or do I answer honestly and let them wrestle with their own conflict?” I chose to simply say “Thank you.” because I was so thankful to be surrounded by people who cared.
This actually happens quite often – when how I feel and how others think I should feel don’t match up. Sometimes it’s because the other person tries to put on me the way they think they would feel. The problem is, no matter the circumstance, each of us will react differently. Other times it’s because of a comment I may have made a couple days earlier. One day I’ll comment, “Aw, it’s a little rough today. Tears keep appearing. I’m just feeling sad” A couple days later I’m chatting with someone and they say, “I heard you are having a rough time.” “Uh, nooo, that was 2 days ago. It lasted for the morning. Today, at least this hour, I’m good, really good.” My poor friends and family, I can be very confusing. I’m like a yo-yo, being down one minute and up the next. I’m difficult to follow.
I am so thankful for all the people in my life that are truly concerned about my family and me. I greatly appreciate everyone taking time to ask, “How are you?” even though it may be awkward. Friends and family don’t know what to say or how to say it. They don’t want to upset me, but at the same time want me to know they are there for me. I cannot begin to tell you how much that has meant. I know that I, myself, do not know how to support others who have loss someone. I am always afraid that I will say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I am truly blown away by how much care has been shown me.
All the time I am receiving support I am thinking of Austin’s friends, hoping they, also, are receiving the care, support and encouragement that they need. So many times, after a funeral, people continue to look out for the family, but forget the friends. However, it is friends that did life with Austin on a day-to-day basis. They are feeling the loss every day and during all the occasions that Austin would have been a part of. Friends need loving as much as family does. “How are you?” can have the same effect on his friends as it does for me, and it needs to be asked with care and sensitivity.
SO, HOW ARE YOU, REALLY?
If someone’s wondering, “How are you, really?” I want them to know, “I am doing very well. You may see me sad at times, or with a distant look or thought. I may need some space, or need to be around people. I may be laughing so hard one minute that my stomach hurts, to only be very sad ten minutes later. Do not try to guess how I am feeling; my emotions are too all over the place for you to figure out. Please don’t think I’m feeling the way you would, chances are I’m not. And don’t feel you have to pull me out of that sadness. As long as I am able to move in out of this sadness I am doing well. This is what is needed as I work out how to deal with not having Austin. In fact, it’s good for me to go there. To be aware of how I am feeling. It is this awareness and acceptance that has always made me strong. So, how am I? I am doing well. I am doing how I’m supposed to be, for this moment”
Hmmmmm….I wonder what others are thinking when I ask them, “How are you?”