Beyond Perfunctory

Hand holding heart

How are you doing during this pandemic?  It turns out, this is the wrong question to ask in this environment, according to a recent article in the Atlantic that seems to hit home to all of us.  When we ask ‘How are you?’ we are expressing perfunctory interest in the other person’s well-being, and typically the question triggers an automatic (and expected) response of: ‘I’m good.  You?’

That might be fine in normal times, but today the pandemic’s effects are dramatic and widespread enough, and the death toll high enough, that we can assume that everyone’s life has changed for the worse in some way.  ‘How are you?’ is a mere pleasantry, a greeting formality, and not an honest inquiry in search of an honest answer like ‘I’m sleepless.  I lost somebody important to me.  My whole life is oriented toward trying desperately not to catch a deadly disease.’

What would be better?  The article recommends some alternatives, including ‘What am I interrupting?’ when you initiate a phone call, or ‘How are you holding up these days?’  Or: ‘What’s your day been like so far?’  If you’re open to a deeper conversation, you might ask: ‘What’s been on your mind today?’  You might follow up on a worry or concern that the other person has mentioned before, and check in on how they’re feeling about it now.

The important thing, if you are truly concerned about the well-being of the person you’re talking to, is to ask a genuine question that invites a genuine answer.  It’s a kindness to give the other person permission not to have to pretend that they’re fine when, in fact, many things around us may not be fine.

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