On the surface, “How are you?” seems a very simple question, so why do most of us struggle to answer it with anything resembling the truth? Don’t we really believe that the other person wants to hear it or are we worried about what will happen to them (or us) if we start to unravel our true feelings?
I was 25 before I realised that the answer to, “How are you?” didn’t automatically have to be “Fine, and you?”. I’d recently met a friend called Amanda who was very suspicious of anyone who replied “fine”. She wanted the truth not some polite fob off. “No, how are you really?”, she would probe and then wait expectantly for a proper answer.
What she suspected and what I soon came to realise, was that I was emotionally illiterate. She knew I clearly wasn’t “fine” because I was going through a difficult patch with my boyfriend at the time and I was also struggling with an unreasonable boss. “Upset,” “annoyed”, or “angry” maybe - but not “fine”.
Some people don’t want to reveal how they are really feeling because they can’t or don’t trust the person asking. That wasn’t so much the case for me. I couldn’t or wouldn’t speak about how I was feeling because I actually didn’t know myself.
I didn’t know because my feelings were squashed so far down that I could barely feel their pulse let alone summarise them into a few coherent sentences to satisfy Amanda’s appetite for emotional intimacy. Maybe it was because I had spent too many years at boarding school learning that my survival was dependent on keeping negative emotions under wraps. Or maybe it was more to do with the after-shock of my elder brother’s death when I was 21.
Whatever the reason things were about to change. Over the following months Amanda helped coach me in the language of feelings. Like learning any language it took time and effort but gradually I could attempt a few sentences beginning with “I feel…”. If I got stuck she would offer a prompt like: “If I had a boyfriend who flirted with someone else in front of me I would feel furious and embarrassed. Don’t you feel either of those?”
Twenty years later and her hard work and my practising have paid off. I’m by no means fluent in emotions but I’ve certainly reached a good conversational standard.
Now, if people ask me “How are you?”, I am quite prepared to answer truthfully. The question I ask myself first though is: do they actually want to know how I am or is “fine, and you?” all that is required in this instance?