“How are you?”
In a typical situation, it’s the most casual of questions, the response almost irrelevant and hardly ever heard. I know that I’m guilty of it; I’ll ask the question and already be moving along to the next sentence before the reply reaches me. Frequently, the response is the same question coming straight back at me. Lately, I’ve been slipping back into the glib, largely meaningless reply – perhaps not too surprising, since I’ve done it almost my entire life. Nevertheless, every time I throw out my trusty “Fine thanks, how’re you doin’?”, a little part of me pulls the same face I reserve for bad smells. I disappoint myself each time.
Today, for example, someone greeted me with the question, and I replied with the reply. Even as I said it, I regretted it. Firstly, it was a lie, and secondly it dawned on me almost immediately that the question was genuine. I was forced to do that most un-English of things, and actually share something of my genuine feelings in person. Generations of emotionally stunted ancestors spun like dynamos in their graves as I braced myself and shared the fact that at that particular time, I really wasn’t feeling too good.
My reward was a brightening of my day. A brief, interrupted conversation it may only have been, but I discovered that this person – an acquaintance but still a relative stranger – actually cared about my reply. I felt a little ashamed about almost brushing off the enquiry with such little regard, but much more than that; I felt warmed and gladdened by the honest concern for my well-being. It made me feel better.
It made me reflective, too. I realized with a small shock, that I very rarely answer that particular question honestly. Not – bizarrely - even to my doctor! I don’t, however, think that this is something unique to this middle-aged Englishman (yes, I’m Canadian but culturally, I’m still English). I’ve been in this beautiful land for many years now, and in my experience, most of us (if not all of us) tend to behave in a similar way. Greetings are words that we habitually throw at one another like snowballs; ephemeral, almost meaningless and rapidly forgotten. Anything more communicative can be confusing, but perseverance can open up another world – and not necessarily as alarming as an immigrant Englishman may find it - of meaningful, emotional living.
It reminds me that communication is as much about listening as it is about what we say. If we truly listen, we may discover previously unknown facets of our surroundings. My discovery was that a person I know only a little genuinely cares about me. I find that rather moving, and it has the welcome side-effect of snapping me out of my habitual grumpiness. Perhaps (cue: sarcastic gasp of surprise) the world is less uncooperative or unpleasant than I sometimes assume!
I’m going to have to do some more listening to find out what other revelations may be waiting for me…