The Trickiness of “How Are You?”

By Emma Pearson

April 20, 2024

Image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

24 June 2023

Yesterday, a fellow widbud, a woman I have never met but who someone connected with me, and who lost her husband just before Christmas 2022 after a very short illness, wrote the note below. I responded to her with both sharing some of my recent writing on this very topic, and also a voicemail. Here is the voicemail written out. I wanted to share it here because that question, “How are you?”, those three words, those three apparently simple words, are so tricky, so landmine-laden, to a Griefling.

Why? Because people typically don’t wait for the answer.  Because if the answer is other than “fine” or “all good” or “never better”, a long awkward pause ensues, or the funky answer is skirted around, glossed over, or “one upped”. Generally people want grieving people to be “doing better” – particularly at the 6 week, 3 month, 6 month, 1 year, 2 year (whatever) mark. And that question – it’s become shorthand for “hello”. And yet it’s not “hello”. It’s “how are you?” and it deserves an answer. But it’s a sucky question.

AND I know that I too ask people this question. Every time it slips out of my mouth I kick myself for asking it. I wish there were a better question. Or actually, I like to think that the question is okay. It’s about the listening in response to asking it. The difference is about being truly ready to hear the answer. The full answer. And staying with the answer. It is less the question, and more the “non-listening” that makes this question so hard.

Here’s my interchange from last night with CW.

Emma, dear, how do you reply to someone who asks how you are? I find that difficult – I want to be honest but now after 6 months and am not okay, I don’t know the best answer… 😘❤️

And my answer

Hiya sweetheart

I thought it would be easier for me to just leave you a voicemail. And I will also share some writing – I have written about the difficulty of answering the question “How are you?” many times, and I generally advise people not to ask the question.

First of all – the bottom-line rule for me is – just because someone is kind enough to ask, doesn’t mean that you have to answer, alright? And that stands for everything. They can ask about how you are, they can ask what you had for breakfast, they can ask if you’ve got enough money, they can ask how much you are drinking… whatever…  Just because they are kind enough to ask doesn’t mean you need to answer. That’s the first thing I want to say.

Secondly, people need to earn the right to have their questions answered. It’s the same theme really –there is an earning that is required. If you have trust, if somebody really loves you and cares for you, and takes the time to find out how you are doing in your (new) life, and they aren’t just flying in, parachuting in, and asking the question, then maybe you do want to answer the question for them. And then, be honest. My other rule of thumb is, definitely be honest. But again, if they just fly in and the question is out of the blue, then no need to answer it. Have they earned the trust?

The third thing is, I know that people really are generally well-intentioned, right? No-one is really mean, or intending to be mean and asking the question “How are you?” But it’s a really clunky question. So one of the things that I do is I say, “You know what – I don’t answer that question”. And I try and say it with a little bit of a light tone. Or I might say, “You know what, I train everyone not to ask that question, because it’s an impossible question to answer, even at the best of times, and especially at the worst of times”. So a better question is “How are you are in this moment?” And some people ask “How are you today?” but I still find “today” is too big. So I tell people, “I don’t answer that question. But I do answer that question in terms of “How I am doing in this moment?”, and “In this moment I am doing okay because it’s lovely to see you”, or “In this moment I am feeling absolutely shite”, or “In this moment I am actually feeling quite peaceful”. Whatever is the truth. So I say I don’t answer the question as it is, I say how I do answer it, and then I answer it. Truthfully. And I try to give them a bit of a lesson at the same time.

It’s such a tricky one. The bottom line is you don’t need to answer anyone’s questions, and you don’t need to answer questions if there isn’t trust.

Medjool later listened to my response and asked, “How do you know this stuff? It’s so wise, and yet so obviously common sense. Why do we get this so wrong? Why don’t we all just know this?”

My response was that I read a lot, I pay attention and notice, I discuss with Grieflings, I reflect, I speak taboos out loud and observe the reactions I get, so I know when I have hit a nerve. I accumulate others’ wisdom. I share it back. This is not “Emma’s view of the world”. And it’s definitely not, “The One Right Way”. But whenever I share this, or versions of this, it resonates.

I’d love to find ways to both improve that dreaded question, and especially the skills for proper listening. A suggested question, which is more an invitation, might be, “I’d love to hear a bit about how you’re doing at the moment, if you’re willing to share”. It’s a mouthful, but there is more acknowledgement of how the question is not altogether simple, that there’s a trust issue, and a need to demonstrate capacity, skill and will around truly listening.

And there will be other ways.

I’d love others’ thoughts on why this is so tricky, and what would make it feel gentler.  

About Emma Pearson

4 thoughts on “The Trickiness of “How Are You?”

  1. Thank you dear Emma, all your words, ideas, wisdom is helping clarify these new and difficult moments. I am so grateful I was introduced to you. You give me a bit of a ‘safe’ feeling. This grief is so deep and so painful. I send you love. Clare

  2. I love this. I don’t have an answer but have discovered and learnt a lot from you, your writing and the perspectives you give. Being open and frank with people helps us all get a little better at handling and expressing our grief and listening and supporting to those experiencing it too.x

  3. oh gosh… such tricky question indeed. How many times I have answered “fine” just because it was easier/expected. I have been probably traumatized by my mother. Wonderful person, but totally unable to ask me that question because she did not really want to know. She would call me on the phone and talk about the news, gossip of the vips, other people, anything but “how are you”. She did not want to tell me, she did not want to hear how I really was. So yes, this has been always a tricky question for me. The “graal” that makes the difference with my friends, those that can enter that difficult and fragile world that it opens.

  4. Dear Emma, thank you for sharing your wisdom around this question. I’m now going to take the suggestion about not answering unless someone has earned it and use it, I really dislike being asked this question, at 2.5 years from losing my husband and years from losing my daughter I’m not sure the person asking could accept the real answer unless they have walked in my shoes which I know you have. Thank you and keep sharing

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