PEOPLE: “How Are You?” Is (kind of) Like the Penny

Vanderbilt’s campus is more than four times the size of Belmont’s campus. I learned this from personal experience before I looked up the numbers today.  I also did a little mapping and found out that in my daily trudge back and forth and back and forth, to and from classes, I cover around five and a half miles a day.  Though the student population is relatively the same between the two schools, I do not run into as many people I know here at Vanderbilt as I did at Belmont. 
Now, obviously there are many other factors that influence that truth, but I’m not a statistician by any means. Nor would I ever care to be one. Actually, I am entirely uninterested in the numbers. (You can read my bio if you’re not sure why).
Instead, I am fascinated by what the numbers represent; their effect on my daily experience.
Because what happens when you do run into someone you know?
You are polite and courteous, of course. And you probably like being friends with this person. So you reach for a familiar phrase that you’ve been taught all of your life communicates care and consideration:
“How are you?” you ask.
If I am this friend you are asking, you do not know what you have just gotten yourself into.
            “Well, do you want the short version so you can get on with your day or do you want to actually know what I really feel?” I think.
And I may or may not verbalize this thought, depending on the key factors of how well I know you and how well sleep did it’s job repairing my social-verbal filter the night before.
I know I am not alone when it comes to this obvious inconsistency between question and desired answer. Generally, when people ask “How are you?”, they are looking for a short response. The list of polite and socially-approved options goes as follows:
            Good (or Well ,if you’re a grammar nerd like me)*
*some variations may include the gerund “doing” before the adjective
But the question “How are you?”  is not a very good vehicle for the endgame of one-word reply. The word “how” implies an answer with description and depth, not a meaningless race to finish the sentence before the other person walks off in a different direction.  I am endlessly frustrated by the blatant disregard for true human connection that this question begs.
            Nevertheless, I engage in the monotony and meaninglessness of hallway “How are you?”s, wishing for the day when someone will actually mean what they say. For now, “How are you?”s are pretty much worthless. They are quick, little exchanges that people glaze over without the slightest thought.
“How are you?”s are the penny in the currency of human conversation.
 A penny does not have much value. In fact, the cost of making a penny is greater the value of owning a penny. Similarly, the time it takes to hurl social courtesies at one another is greater than the actual depth of relationship gained in that time.
Heck! Sometimes you ask someone how they are and you don’t even get a response! And where does that leave your kind question? On the ground, passed by, like it’s only a penny – not worth picking up or responding to.
But we still do it.
We still ask “How are you?”
And the penny is still in circulation.
It’s not because we are unaware of the façade of our question, or because we have some illogical notion that the penny is a valuable form of currency.
Have you ever had a rough day? (Where I’m from, we like to call them “shambly” days because everything around you – maybe even including you – is in shambles).  And then on your way to class, that kid you sit next to in calculus tosses a meaningless social gesture your way:
“Hey! How are you?”
            You make exact change.
            “Good. You?”
For some inexplicable reason, today that question meant something. No, I’m not going all mushy on you here. It didn’t change the fact that today was shambly. But, today it meant that somebody cared enough to string together some words and verbalize them. And that’s enough for today.              

            So, I will continue to ask how people are when I see them on my quarter-marathon of a walk to class.  Join me in perpetuating this seemingly empty phrase! Even if it is simply out of social grace that we exchange these one-cent questions. You never know when someone might find your “How are you?” heads-up and call themselves lucky.

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