I was walking down a hallway in the building where I work and walking straight toward me was a co-worker whom I know casually. As we reached eyeball to eyeball range I said, “Hi!” She gently smiled and said, “Fine, thank you.” I had a millisecond of mental short circuiting but then realized that she answered a question I did not ask. To my chagrin, I realized that I had just encountered one more perpetrator of “flippant greeting disorder.” It’s not an official diagnosis but I believe our culture needs to be healed of it.
Simply put, the problem is that almost universally people say “Hello” to each other by adding the question, “How are you?” Yet, they, at that moment, have no serious interest in nor desire to know how well or not well the greeted person is and if the greeted person, as I “wickedly”do some times, were to actually answer the question with a rather long rendition of their tales of woe and afflictions, the greeter would probably be surprised and would squirm and fidget while seeking the quickest possible escape from this inconvenient catharsis.
Once a teller at the parking garage of a hospital where I had just visited a sick friend asked me as he took my ticket, “Hey, how ya doin?” I seized my opportunity and pounced back with, “Thanks for asking. I’m really not doing well at all. I just visited a life-long friend who is dying of cancer and it really has me broken up.” I could see the terror in the teller’s eyes as he glanced at the cars behind me filled with busy people waiting to pay their parking fee. He was quickly coming to regret having greeted me this way but I wasn’t going to let him off the hook. I continued, “You see, this friend is my childhood buddy. We camped together, caught frogs together, and we were each other’s best man in our weddings. I don’t want to lose him. He is too young to die.” Well, by now the teller was clearing his throat like he had swallowed a raw egg and looking from side to side for some way out of this costly encounter. So, compassionately I stopped my tale of woe, took my change and said as I stepped on the gas, “Well, you did ask me how I was doing.” He gazed back at me with a befuddled look of embarrassment as I drove out of view.
I am on a crusade against flippant greeting disorder. So every time someone says “Hello” to me and flippantly adds the question, “How are you?” I look right at them without answering. I pause for a half a second, just enough time for them to realize that something awkward is happening. Then I just say “Hi.” I don’t answer the question because I know that it was not a serious inquiry about my wellbeing. Like the parking garage teller, they don’t really want to know nor do they really have the time or attention to hear how I am doing at that particular moment. They are simply saying “Hello.”
So, why am I on this crusade? Because as a pastor, chaplain, and a therapist, I know for a fact that most people in the world really do want someone to ask, “Hey, Sam, how are you? Are you OK?” And after the question, they hope the person asking it will take the time to listen to the answer. People are hurting everywhere and you don’t have to look far from your own family and friends to find them. The double whammy of flippant greeting disorder for the hurting person is that not only are they not receiving a needed serious inquiry about their life, but, to be polite and move on past this shallow greeting, they feel compelled to misrepresent themselves glibly saying “Oh, fine,” when, in fact, they are not fine. I work in two hospitals and I often observe even doctors and nurses greeting patients this way. The last thing a depressed person wants to be coerced to say is “I’m fine.” Not only is flippant greeting disorder a people-care mistake, it really makes no sense. “How are you” does not by any stretch of the imagination mean the same as “hello.”
TV and movies are desensitizing our population to the horrors of violence and death with tragic results. And like the boy who cried “Wolf” too often so that when the real wolf attacked no one would listen, I fear that this “flippant greeting disorder” will so desensitize us to the real importance of the essential-life question, “How are you?” that eventually we won’t know what words, what reason or what occasion to seriously inquire of another person “how they are (really) doing.”
Therefore, I challenge everyone who reads this article to take up the cause of erasing flippant greeting disorder from planet earth. All it will take is a commitment to three simple actions.
- DON’T ASK THE QUESTION. Commit to never greet anyone with the question, “How are you?” If you don’t really want to know, don’t ask.
- DON’T ANSWER THE QUESTION. When you are greeted by someone who asks “How are you? allow them an awkward moment of silence and then just say “Hello.” They might think about it.
- DON’T IGNORE THE QUESTION. Use the content of this letter to explain to as many people as will listen why you didn’t answer their question “How are you?” We need to restore the question, “How are you?” to its rightful use in a caring community.
Please use every opportunity to recruit more people to join the crusade for wiping out flippant greeting disorder. Forward this article to your entire email list.