As published in The Rye Record on October 9, 2015
It’s a basic human need to be heard. It’s why we have words and art, so that we can take what’s inside of us and share it with others. Likewise, really hearing what someone is trying to tell you is the most affirming, kindest thing you can do for them. I believe this with all my heart, which is why it’s kind of funny that I’ve completely stopped listening to people.
Consider this conversation I have every time I check out my groceries. Checker: “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Me: “Fine thanks.” We both notice but politely ignore what I’ve done there. I’m answering a question that I expected her to ask (because God knows everyone cares how I am), and she’s asking a question that that her manager said was going to make me feel like I was getting excellent customer service. And sure, I couldn’t find the hummus I was looking for. There was hummus, but just the weird kind with the roasted peppers on top, the kind that totally freaks my kids out. Is this her problem? Is there any hummus in the world that’s worth making her leave her post while everyone else in line behind me waits? I think not, so I tell her I’m fine thanks.
Listening is on the decline in general. I don’t mean the nose-to-nose, heartfelt listening you do with a friend, the kind where “How are you?” leads to follow up questions and furrowed brows. I mean there’s a decline in listening to the million have-a-nice-days that comprise the white noise around us. The more of it we hear, the less it means and the less we listen.
I’m a big part of the problem. I spend my day assaulting people with the quick “How are you?”, tossed over my shoulder as I leave the room or peel out of the parking lot. It lands like a dead grenade at the feet of whomever I asked. The expected response is either “good” or “fine,” but I’m okay with “You’re welcome,” “No thank you,” or nothing at all. Once I asked a woman how she was, and she said “Fantastic!” That, I heard. Fantastic? She’s obviously having an affair. But I never found out about it, because I’d shouted the question while driving past her at 10 miles per hour.
When the guy at the coffee shop says “How you doing?” he means, “May I help you?” or even “Next!” I ignore his question and say, “May I please have a small coffee?” My response is actually more polite than if I’d taken the time to thank him for his interest and expound on exactly how I’m doing: I’ve been busy with work and my son’s applying to college, a subject on which I have many thoughts and feelings, which I will now list now in order of when these thoughts and feelings hit me during the day… Can you imagine being the person behind me in line who just wants to order a latte?
In a sense, “How are you?” has become a rhetorical question, which is why I’m in favor of bringing back “How do you do?” It’s a question that acknowledges the fact that it’s just a greeting, a placeholder and nothing more. The response to “How do you do” is “How do you do.” How easy is that? You toss it right back and keep moving. It’s like the modern day “What’s up?”, the response to which seems to also be “What’s up?” Is it possible that “What’s up?” is the new “How do you do”?
In the meantime I’m trying to budget my how-are-yous only for the times when I am in a position to stay and listen to the answer. And, be warned, I’m going to try to start training other people to budget theirs by actually answering exactly the question I was asked. You may not want to get behind me in line at the grocery store.