Most people have heard the phrase at least once in their lives, and a large majority of people have used it themselves a good deal more than once. It’s a common sentence that follows the initial “Hello,” but despite its seemingly caring tone, “how are you?” is probably one of the most insincere things a person can say.
Certainly there are times when a person is genuinely interested in how another person is doing, but most of the time when someone says “Hello, how are you?” they don’t really care about your answer. They ask you the question and expect you to reply with the pre-scripted answer of “good thanks,” perhaps followed by having the same question regurgitated back to them. Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to answer, “Oh, I’m absolutely dreadful, but thanks, how are you,” and honestly, they don’t want you to.
Some people will justify the habit phrase as being a good conversation starter, but I’ve yet to see how it can be when most people just answer with the expected reply. People just go through the initial greeting motions, and then they have to find something else to talk about anyway.
“How are you” is a completely meaningless, insincere phrase that people use to make a pretense of caring when in truth, they really don’t give a damn. The perfect example is a telemarketer. Are we really expected to believe that a salesman we’ve never met, who can’t even pronounce our name, really cares how we are? We get so used to hearing the phrase in common usage that when someone asks the question in earnest, we’re still preconditioned to give the “good thanks” answer instead of expounding and perhaps starting a real conversation.
I knew someone who once made me aware of just how pointless the phrase was. Every single day he would greet the same people with “Hi, how are you?” and people would respond with the same answer they had given him the previous day, and the day before, because not much had changed in the 24 hours since they’d last been asked. He wasn’t really asking how anyone was, it was just an ingrained reflex to ask the question. He was saying the words, but there wasn’t anything behind them. Or to quote Paul Simon “People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.”
Sincerity can often be a hard thing to come by in this technical, sales-driven world, so why enhance it by perpetuating a phrase that so few people use genuinely? Maybe its time to start actually meaning what we say. Maybe it’s time to stop asking “how are you?” when a simple “hello” will do…unless of course it’s someone we really care to hear the answer from.