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March 21, 2012 at 10:06 PMComments: 2 Faves: 0

How Are You?...No, Really!

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Not long ago I visited a patient of mine in the hospital who had taken quite a tumble and fractured his hip. 

I walked into his room and he cracked open his eyes to greet me. His wife swept away the newspaper on a chair with her arm and pleasantly asked me to have a seat. I asked, “How are you?” and with a smile they both replied that they were just fine. The wife then asked me if I wanted a cookie.

Clearly they were not fine. 

She hadn’t slept from the long night in the emergency room. He looked like he had gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson, his face bruised and his leg in traction.  In my experience as a doctor, I have come to see that “How are you?” has become adulterated.

This blog will explore both sides of this ubiquitous question—the people who lightly ask it and the people who run from its potential depth.

Hi! How are you?

“How are you?” has become a greeting nicety. It's no longer really a question in the typical sense - an attempt to gain information. The response, "Good." is polite and expected.

Each time we ask, are we truly willing to accept anything but the obligatory, “I’m good, how are you?”  Of course, the asker is also "good".

But what if we ACTUALLY want to know how a person is doing? How do we convey that the question is not being asked out of simple politeness?

Conversely, how do we as the asked know if the question is sincere and that our honesty will be met with support? When confronted with a sincere curiosity, can we look people in the eye and communicate any challenges we are facing?

Sincerity at Work

At work, people come to me with real needs. Most have a health concern causing them distress on some level.  Yet  despite wheezing, itching or pain, many people will tell me they are “just fine." 

I challenge their assertion. I remind them that they probably wouldn’t be in a doctor’s office if everything were fine. 

If you are greeting someone, tell them that it is nice to see them, but only ask how they are if you really want to know. If you do want to know how they are, express compassion and genuine interest. Make your sincerity clear. If you are asked how you are, be honest in a concise and non-overwhelming manner. In sum, be deliberate, but be honest.

When They AREN'T "Fine."

There is yet one more side to this issue.  I partner with many people in a number of ongoing health challenges.  To these people, it may be well-known that they are facing difficulties in their lives. They communicate to me regularly the burden of continually being asked, “How are you?” They think "You know what I'm dealing with. How do you THINK I am?"

To them, the well-meaning people who ask accomplish anything but providing for an uplifting interaction. If you encounter someone who is facing a significant challenge that is known to you, provide encouragement rather than inquiring about pain or turmoil. Communicate compassion to them. Make eye contact, provide appropriate touch and give encouraging words. Telling a person, “I am thinking about you,” “I’m praying for you,” or providing a legitimate compliment will go a lot further. Above all, be honest!

Living Deliberately

The Nineteenth Century literary icon Henry David Thoreau moved away from society and into the woods alone because he “wanted to live deliberately.” Thoreau desired to escape the superficial fluff of life.

In our lives, I believe that we can live deliberately in the forest of our day-to-day circles.  I challenge you to incorporate such behavior in the common daily interactions you have with those you regard favorably.  Be exemplary in your caring and honesty.

Live, and live well!
- Jeff VanWingen, MD

Photo Credit: solja

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  • Transcendental reference, nice.

  • I really like the concept of living deliberately.

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