How do you answer the question: “How are You?

What is in the middle of “fine” and the whole sordid story?

I confess that sometimes I verbally vomit the entire story on unsuspecting people who have innocently asked a socially acceptable question. At some point along the way, I’ve lost the social acceptable response … or have I?

Why do people ask how you are when they don’t really want to know all of it?

I’m sure I’ve asked the question when I didn’t really want to know the whole story.  I know I have responded automatically, as if by rote, when someone asks me how I’m doing.  It’s the polite thing to do, after all, to inquire.  Yet, is it really polite to ask the question if we don’t really want to know?

When did politeness take the place of real concern?

I confess to having a weird relationship with social graces.  On the one had, I have internalized the social cues and requirements of my Midwestern upbringing.   I’ve read books by Emily Post and found myself nodding at all the small things that I learned from my grandmothers and great-grandmother.   I still cringe at things that are completely acceptable here in South Florida.  I’ve had to adjust my idea of acceptable social touching since moving to the South where everyone is embraced and kissed on the cheek automatically.  It’s taken me decades to break out of the polite acceptance of violations of courtesy or my expectations in public.

Being diagnosed with a terminal illness and carrying all of the consequences to my mental health along with the cognitive damage from chemo has finally burned away many of my closely held societal expectations of my behavior and the behavior of the medical professionals I see nearly every day.  I’d always been inclined to fill out surveys and it was not abnormal for me to complain about bad service.  Cancer and all that comes with cancer finally burned all the rest of any hesitation away.

So, despite the fact that I am sure it is often socially unacceptable, I reserve the right to burden anyone who asks me how I’m doing with the whole story.  You see, I have a story.  I have a deliciously detailed story with many anecdotal conclusions.  I’ve figured a lot out over the last nearly three years of having a terminal illness.  I’ve come in contact with lots of different people and I’ve accumulated knowledge like a squirrel preparing for winter.

Fair warning.

39 thoughts on “How do you answer the question: “How are You?

  1. It’s a socially acceptable question, but you’re also right that it seems like there are limits to the number of socially acceptable answers. Usually the one word answers such as good and fine and so-so are socially acceptable. Though I wish that changed. Sometimes someone does need someone else to speak to about their struggle.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I hesitate to ask sometimes because I don’t want you (or others with illnesses) to have to think about it if for some reason they aren’t at the time. But I always truly welcome the whole story from anyone who wishes to share it.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I think “How Are You?” is as automatic as “what’s up?” Very few people expect an answer. I wait until the person presses further before answering, or if the person is a friend, then I unload. However, I have had instances where someone asks – a woman on an airplane once – and I dumped, to my amazement, to hers, and to my husband. It was like I couldn’t stop, and this poor woman got the details.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I was told once that an acronym for “fine” was eff’d up(or freaked out), insecure, neurotic, and emotional. I’ll use that with people who really know me. “Doin’ ok” or “good thanks” are my standard. I’ve only occasionally gone into the whole ugly story with a stranger, and that’s when someone has complained to me about the “bad” day they’re having, I’ll share my bad day. I reserve those for the days I’m most angry at my diagnosis.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes!! When I’m frustrated at some weird idiosyncratic issue at my cancer center, I’m much more likely to unload on someone. Also, yes, when someone is complaining and needs a good healthy dose of “it could be a LOT worse.”


  5. I always appreciate it when people are honest with their replies. That’s why I’m asking. I really want to know! I think its an honour when someone really opens up in that moment. It’s hard to be honest and vulnerable. Plus, it shows strength and bravery. All fine character traits.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Hi Abigail,

    Asking someone, how are you?, is something we all do from rote, I suppose. As one who isn’t a fan of small talk, I think some of these supposed niceties could be left unsaid. Just yesterday as I was going through the checkout at the grocery store, the checker asked me this exact question and then also asked me what else I was going to do today. I mean really, I just wanted to get out of there with my stuff, not partake in meaningless small talk that neither of us cared about. Maybe I was rude, but whatever.

    Anyway, this is a good read on a topic most can relate to, cancer or no cancer. Since you’re metastatic, that adds another whole dimension to the question. I find that most people don’t really want to know, so I don’t generally share much. I’m okay with that as I’m a private person. x

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I hear you!! I also tend more towards being private but then sometimes the grief, the anger, the worry, the strong feelings just come bursting out. So glad I have this outlet for all of that as well. ❤️❤️. Thank you, as always, for your support!!


  7. Love this! “I’m fine” some as second nature and I think I generally just find it easier than going into the whole story, especially if I’m anticipating that other person either doesn’t really care (and is just asking out of common curtesy) or won’t understand anyway. Other times I just don’t want to burden someone else. When I’m honest about how I’m feeling, which is quite rare, I just end up feeling bad about it, like others must think it’s an overexaggeration and I feel bad to complain when I know there are others far worse off than I. Politeness over honesty, over sharing the reality and reaching out to others… crackers, huh!
    Caz xx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I always appreciate the honesty of your writing. I think we should all bow (less germ transfer that way) like they do in Japan, Korea and wherever else and we say “it’s nice to see you” and dive into the project at hand.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Glad I’m not the only one. I blogged on this exact thing in 2014. Anymore, I might answer “Do you really wanna know?” But really, there aren’t many people I am comfortable with sharing full disclosure with, so, I do still mostly say “fine, you?”

    Liked by 3 people

  10. If someone asks, “How are you,” they might get the “I’m fine” response or they might get the verbal spewage of how my teaching day has truly been. Depends on the day, depends on the person, and honestly, it depends on how much I really care.

    Have both a cancer scare and a stroke, I’m much more open and upfront with my feelings, which is both a blessing and a curse. I can release my emotion much more easily (thanks damage to my brain), but still have that Midwestern filter that clicks on.

    For some, they truly want to know, for others, they get that look of, “Damn, why did I ask??” Either way, it’s always a roll of the dice! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing with us today, and I’m fine, thanks for asking!😂

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Abigail, I admire your strength and the way you carry yourself with that enormous burden over your shoulder. I really admire you for being so involved and active in your kid’s lives! One sometimes takes things for granted and you let time slip by without really appreciating the joy time with your kids brings. I am sorry I have never taken the opportunity to ask you truly how are you… but I want you to know, I see you, I read you, and I care… I wish you did not have to be going through this, and I know there is probably not that much that I can do to help… but know from the bottom of my heart I really admire your strength and I appreciate everything you do for the kids at school. Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  12. With people I know and with people who know me I tell them exactly how I’m feeling. But the ones that really really really get to me is the person in the shop who has just taken my money and then says and how’s your day been. I usually say I’ve just been diagnosed with heart dise ase. How’s your day been?

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Here’s another aspect to throw into the mix. I had a friend who was quite interested, even somewhat intrusive about others’ medical issues, including mine. When she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, I thought I was following my heart and her lead by checking in frequently and asking her how she was doing and how I might help. I’ve never been considered overbearing. She became increasingly less available to me, though I knew she was able to continue an active life til shortly before her death. (She told me she had stage 2; it was actually stage 4.) I found out later from her husband, with whom I am still close, that she didn’t want to be defined by her cancer. I can certainly understand that, but I wish she could have said “Enough!” instead of disappearing from my life so abruptly. Yet she was in the center of the circle, so her needs were paramount; it wasn’t about me…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fascinating. It’s always so interesting to me how each person has their own reality, their own concerns, and how often that reality isn’t something that is shared. Thank you for sharing this intriguing perspective.


  14. I completely understand, Abigail. Thank you for sharing this. My thoughts and prayers are with you. By the way, I’ve nominated you for the Mystery Blogger Award because I think your blog is terrific and that you deserve it!

    Liked by 3 people

  15. ‪As a Brit, I would find the embracing a bit weird too, Abigail – I got used to it as a student in France, but I was much younger then…
    Nowadays I tend only to tell the really persistent friends the whole story – or I write about it somewhere where you really want to know the answer. Sharing the stories is much too exhausting otherwise!
    Sending much love ❤️‬

    Liked by 2 people

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