How honest are you about your feelings?
Have we taken enough collective steps to be open which each other and find strength in our vulnerabilities?
Or are we still stuck answering the question, “How are you?” with the brevity of old-time etiquette?
We ask a newer question, “R U OK?” with care.
In between, is there space to reveal ourselves?
Recently, I heard an expert on a podcast theorise it’s time to stop asking “How are you?” as a greeting and my etiquette alarm wailed in protest. I struggle to stay on top of current social trends, on- and off-line, without messing around with the traditional anchors of our conversations.
“How are you?” used to be a bland question, normally invoking a bland response. Like dogs, we sniff around each other when we greet, except we use oral cues, not olfactory ones, to understand how to proceed.
Maybe, the expert proposed, we’re missing an opportunity to be more real with each other.
We don’t need to do such a formal verbal dance with people we know well. So, can we start conversations with friends, family, and colleagues with less boring and more meaningful questions?
For two weeks, I attempted to forge deeper connections with my close network by asking better questions. I even found a pre-prepared list to choose from, including:
- What has been an unexpected upside to your week?
- What have you learned this week?
- What has put the biggest smile on your face this week?
- If you could wake up tomorrow, having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
- What is your favourite room in your home, and why?
Asking better questions was too hard…
They’re good prompts and interesting questions, but I couldn’t do it, especially the latter two on the list above. The questions are designed to reach deeper connections quicker, but “Hello” has no underlying meaning for a reason; it is a greeting.
Isn’t “How are you?”, when it follows, a verbal pause? Doesn’t it allow us to gather our wits before the substance of our conversation starts?
The five questions above felt too abrasive, intrusive, and clunky.
A different approach led to unique responses
So, I found an intermediary solution. I pictured who I might talk to next and before we spoke, I imagined replacing “How are you?” with a personalised question. Maybe this comes easily to some people, but not to me. Yet, it worked, and it wasn’t awful. I experimented on family members and my quirkier free-spirited friends.
My way around the “How are you?” question while side-stepping the awkwardness of the suggestions above, was to ask a basic but tailored question. These included:
“Hi Maria, how was your morning swim?”
“Hi Kathy, are you looking forward to work today?”
“Hi Mary, were the night shifts this weekend OK?”
“Hi Peter, did you get out into the sun this weekend?”
I still felt foolish. Showing genuine, personalised interest still felt intrusive. What if the person is having a bad day? What if I hit a raw nerve by accident?
But I received immediate warmth and a unique, revealing response each time.
* * * * *
When people ask me personalised questions, I appreciate them remembering small details about my life. I feel special. Asking these questions gives all of us permission, if we like, to be vulnerable, too. Afterwards, we can shift more quickly into collaborative, meaningful, and positive conversations.
When we start a conversation with “How are you?”, or sign off an email with, “Keep well”, these phrases are more laden with meaning than they used to be. They tickle our fear worms. They’re no longer mere rapport establishers or etiquette ribbons to wrap an email up.
Imagine replacing them and in the process becoming more open about who and how we are with each other.
I’m Rananda, a Sydney-based writer and editor.
With 25-plus years in corporate life, a financial background, a science education, and a lifetime of writing, I know there is more to starting and growing a loyal following than just the words on your website or saving that draft manuscript in a folder.
I bring comprehensive practical experience to supporting your writing needs.