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Terms That Tantalize the Traumatized

There is little argument that “Are you all right?"--asked of someone who has just been seriously traumatized--is among the most common cliches in movies and TV shows. (A variant is “Are you OK?”)

Marj Hart of Encino recalls, however, a rather refined variation in an old British mystery film. “A young lady is thoroughly cuffed about by her boyfriend and is left, bloody and hysterical, for another young gentlemen to find. Upon entering the room where the lady is sprawled on the floor, sobbing, the gentleman very courteously inquires: ‘Can I get you something?’ ”

A Scotch on ice, perhaps? Oh, the British are so deucedly civil.

Hart also recalls an old Western in which the cavalry “gallops madly over hill and valley, dust billowing and banners flying,” until it halts at the top of a rise overlooking “the last bleak smoldering embers of a farmhouse, barn and outbuildings.” Several bodies, pierced by arrows, are scattered about. The lieutenant says to his sergeant:

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“Sergeant, I’m afraid we’ve arrived too late.”

E. P. Stein of Sherman Oaks recalls one from cop movies. A regiment of police officers has trapped a mad-dog killer in a two-story frame house. They have lobbed tear gas into the house and peppered it with gunfire. Their quarry has fought back with his own arsenal (“purchased,” Stein says, “with a grant from the NRA”), drilling numerous holes in police cars, neighboring houses and a passing ice cream truck.

Whereupon our detective hero arrives on this scene of devastation, picks up a bullhorn and barks out: “All right, Schmogeggi, we know you’re in there!”

Mel Diamond, liaison to the film and TV industries for the American Cancer Society, thinks it may have been Henny Youngman who told of a slight variation on the question, “Are you all right?”

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In Youngman’s story, a man falls off a 12-story building. As he lies mortally injured on the sidewalk, a citizen rushes to his side and asks, “What happened?” To which the dying man replies: “I don’t know. I just got here myself.”

Gerhard Henschke of Van Nuys recalls that Jack Lemmon told of working with Walter Matthau in a film in which Matthau accidentally fell down a mail chute. Lemmon raced to his side and said, “Are you all right?” To which Matthau replied: “I’m making a living.”

Wendell Phillips of Green Valley Lake, who has held a first-aid certificate for 25 years, concedes that “Are you all right?” is a movie cliche, but points out that it is irreplaceable in real life.

One’s first concern, he says, is to find out whether the injured person is conscious. “Are you dead?” seems inappropriate. “Are you seriously injured?” might add to the person’s shock and mental trauma. “How do you feel?” is even more inane than “Are you all right?”

Phillips notes that trainers or doctors talking to injured football players ask questions like, “Where are you?” or “What day is it?,” which merely wastes time before CPR or other first aid is undertaken.

When I was in Huntington Memorial Hospital after my bypass surgery, a nurse asked me, “Where are you?” I was going to say “Huntington Hotel”; something told me hotel was wrong; but I couldn’t think of hospital . I simply said, “Huntington,” and she seemed satisfied that I was all right.

Barbara Scandalis of Arcadia thinks “Are you all right?” is a euphemism, in real life, for “Will you survive this terrible thing that has happened to you?” or “Convince me that you’re not going to die.”

She compares it with the question “How do you feel?” often asked by news reporters of someone who has just suffered some personal catastrophe, like rape or the death of a child.

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I have often been a reporter in that situation and I think “How do you feel?” is absurd, cruel and intrusive. But I don’t know what question is not. Maybe the best question is, “Do you want to talk about it?” Sometimes they do want to talk about it, without being obliged specifically to answer the question, “How do you feel?”

Maybe the best question, in all circumstances, is “How ya doin’?”

It’s casual, inoffensive, friendly and unfocused. At worst, it can simply be dismissed as a meaningless salutation.

Let’s hear it for “How ya doin’?”


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