When they ask how you are and you say fine, does that actually accomplish anything? We need an alternative to “How are you?”
How are you?
We hear this question multiple times a day from friends, coworkers, and loved ones. How do you usually answer?
Do you share what’s going on in your life and what’s weighing on your mind? Or do you, like most of us, say “pretty good” and leave it at that?
When they ask how you are, you’re expected to say “fine.” But holding back what you’re actually feeling can leave you feeling empty and unimportant.
The Problem With “How Are You?”
In many cultures, any mental state other than happiness is stigmatized. When someone asks “How are you?” it can feel like they don’t want a real answer; just a positive chirp.
We hide our emotional struggles from employers out of fear of discrimination. We keep our demons close to our chest so as not to bother our friends. We often don’t seek help because it’s reinforced that we don’t need it.
But here’s the simple truth: We have feelings. Some of them are happy. Some are uncomfortable. Some are straight-up painful. Hiding how we really feel is denying ourselves a basic part of the human experience: To feel a full spectrum of emotion.
To break the unintentionally insincere pattern of asking “How are you?” we suggest two steps:
- Lead by example, by answering “How are you?” more sincerely, and
- Start asking a different question, one that helps others express themselves more genuinely than with a simple “fine.”
Why Your Honest Answer Matters
Research on mental health consistently suggests that the best way to combat stigma is by making direct contact with people who have experienced struggles.
While peoples’ challenges with emotional wellbeing vary, it’s still uncommon to hear people honestly talk about their issues. Thus, being honest could help more than just you.
Hiding how we really feel is denying ourselves a basic part of human experience.
By giving an authentic, reflective answer to someone’s brief top-of-the-day question, you open up that gulf between people that hides negative emotions.
You show those around you, by example, that it’s OK to have ups and downs. If you’re not afraid to talk about the difficult stuff, they don’t have to worry, either.
Of course, sharing is a two-way street, so you’ll want to inquire in return. But don’t let your question be too easy to deflect with a “fine!” or “good, how bout you.”
To get real, you’ll have to get a little deeper, by asking more thoughtful, open questions.
Alternatives To “How Are You?”
Neurological research has shown that talking about ourselves activates the reward centers of our brain — simply put, talking about yourself feels good for a reason. When you encourage others to talk about their lives, you give them a biological happiness boost.
With that goal in mind, how do you get someone to really open up?
Ask “How Are You *Feeling?*”
Unfortunately, asking “How are you?” doesn’t get you very far. The person you’re talking to is likely to respond with “good,” or “fine,” or whatever other neutral-positive word comes to mind. Instead, try asking: “How are you feeling?”
A range of questions that elicit a more thoughtful answer will work:
- How have you been feeling this week?
- What happened over your weekend?
- You have anything stressful on your plate?
- Or, the most direct: What are your emotions like today?
It might feel a little odd to ask a non-standard question when greeting a coworker or friend. But the payoff will be well worth it.
Questions about feelings can normalize negative emotion experiences by allowing them into the open. They also come across as more genuine and interested.
Lastly, real questions remind us that it’s OK to talk about emotions, good and bad, because they’re part of being human.
After You Ask: Active Listening
You asked someone about their emotions, and the door has been opened. How do you keep it that way?
Actively listen to the response they give to your question. Active listening is all about showing the other person you actually care about what they’re saying. To be an active listener, you’ll need to:
- Show nonverbal and verbal signs of interest. Nod, maintain eye contact, and encourage them to go on.
- Ask more questions. Ask clarifying questions when you feel you’ve scratched the surface of something deeper. Some go-tos: “How does that make you feel?” / “What do you think about that?” / “How has that been affecting you?” If they mention any feeling words, start there. Questions about feelings are particularly engaging.
- Avoid judgments and “why” questions. Don’t offer your interpretation of their situation, don’t tell them they should feel differently, and don’t ask them for a justification of their feelings. These are all potentially invalidating and can make a person feel like they aren’t really being heard.
- Summarize. Every so often, say “I’m hearing you that…” It can be incredibly validating for a conversational partner that their feelings be understood. This can take practice to do artfully, but you can start by repeating back exactly what they said. For example, if someone is telling you how they feel stressed about a problem at work, you can follow up with “I can see how that would be stressful.”
The takeaway here is to try to open up more and encourage others to open up more. With questions like “How are you feeling?” you get below the surface. Opening the door for real feelings not only makes people feel good, but it can also be a powerful tool in destigmatizing struggles.