What Happened To “How Are You?”

It got weird, didn’t it.

Photo by @gebhartyler on Unsplash

Remember asking people “how are you?” and genuinely not caring about their response? Me too. Now I approach the question like it’s a tube of cinnamon rolls that could burst open at any moment. “How Are You” was, until about 33 days ago, just good manners. Now it’s a vital piece of information that I need everyone I’ve ever cared about to sound off and report on at regular intervals like we’re staking out a crime scene. How are you? For once I really want to know.

I don’t think I’ve asked this question of anyone recently where it hasn’t erupted in fits of nervous giggles from both parties. Almost like we’re shocked that the other person actually had the bravery to ask it and we ourselves have lost the language with which to respond. A formerly benign question now carries the responsibility once reserved for very handsomely paid therapists. You sure you wanna do that, pal? You’ve just asked your way into a mine field! You’re in uncharted waters of conversation, abandon all small talk, ye who enter here.

Do we tell the truth? Do we lie? Which one of those things is the softer landing at any given moment? How is the person who’s asked us this riddle, while we’re at it? Are they at full emotional battery life to be able to handle my answer to this question? Do I need to spare them the stress of my feelings in this moment or have they had an okay day and thus can be a steady receptacle for my own emotional temperature and frayed state? If I tell them how I am, will I change how they are? How did the verbal equivalent of a limp handshake come to bear such a burden? “How Are You” didn’t ask for this.

Even if we do want to answer the question, we don’t know how yet. A global pandemic isn’t something we have the skills for, we’ve only just sat down in class. We’re still experiencing so many new feelings, emotions, and statuses, heaven knows we haven’t had a chance to put them into clear wording yet. Every time we grasp at some semblance of a description for this unique bouquet of fear, uncertainty, anxiety, isolation, stress, and frustration, something else happens and shakes the snow globe again. Our emotions have the fluidity of a plastic sack filled with water, there’s no firm structure here.

Then there’s the comparing. “How Are You” is all relative, isn’t it? The spectrum of experience during COVID-19 has perhaps the broadest wingspan of any global circumstance on record. Experiences range from totally fine and living in a well-stocked Hollywood mansion to…actually no longer living. It also depends on who you are, what you do for a living, and various levels of susceptibility to infection. If you’re asking me in general how I am, I haven’t touched a human in 35 days, I don’t entirely know where money comes from now, and my body refuses to function past 1pm. All of the things that I used to find engaging and entertaining now excite me about as much a wet seat on the subway. I both cry and drink too much but never at the same time and I’m scared to take my Xanax both because I might become addicted to it and also because I might run out so instead I’ve just started re-watching Luther. I also have the patience of a packet of Pop-Rocks. But in the broader sense of people fighting to save the lives of the sick and stacking bodies in cooler trucks? I’m aces, man. Aces.

Is it even decent manners to be “fine” or “good” right now? Our go-to answers to this question now seem like absolute lunacy when they come out of a human mouth. You’re fine? How exactly? Have you been camping in a remote area since February? Living beneath the sea in an aquatic vessel? Either way sit down, sir — we need to talk. Here, you’ll need this grain silo full of whisky, we’ve put a tap on it for you like a hamster.

I’m not used to being this confused for this long. This whole experience is taking emotions best experienced in the short term and stretching them out like boardwalk taffy. We’re not supposed to be scared, isolated, or uncertain of the future for this much time. Crisis mode isn’t supposed to come with a Netflix membership. I worry we’re not built to be turned up to 11. Not for this long, anyway.

We rely on plans, and certainty. We operate within a framework and an order of things, because as human beings, bookends make us feel safe. We’re an entire culture of people who cannot book meetings or dinners in groups larger than two because everyone knows exactly what they’re doing so far into the future. Our plans have been blown away like eyeshadow dust atop a bathroom counter, this is the actual abyss, people. As we float around, untethered, something as effortless and established as “How Are You” has transfigured into the boogeyman from our nightmares, unwelcome and unapproachable as ever.

Maybe it isn’t about the answer to the question at all. Maybe just asking the question is what matters. Because I don’t think you can ask it anymore without that act implying you genuinely care about the answer, and the person. It’s okay if after asking it both of you just kind of express a bewildered sigh. I don’t think we can expect answers that really convey what we mean for quite some time. At least not until we’re allowed to go to the movies again.

I miss the part where we just had nice manners. Before the world got so crazy our brains had to watch an unfathomable documentary about polygamy, murder, missing limbs, and tigers because that was the only thing that could distract us from how truly insane the world past our own driveways has become. We’ll get back there. I’ll look forward to the day that “How Are You” doesn’t mean anything anymore. But for now, it’s just familiar and relevant enough to qualify as a jumping off point because we don’t know any other way to start a conversation. It’s okay, it’ll do for now. How am I? Honestly I don’t know. But please keep asking just the same.

NPR once called me a humor essayist, let’s go with that. Host of A Single Serving Podcast. shanisilver[at]gmail

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