How to answer that ‘How are you?’ question when everything is awful

Illustration that says "How are you?"
(Illustrations by Jill De Haan / For The Times)

In the before time, “How are you?” was a simple pleasantry. No one ever really meant it when they asked. It was a prompt, a mere introduction, a segue into a larger conversation.

However, in the middle of total social collapse, being asked “How are you?” has become a lifeline for many who have felt the real weight of loneliness, and some may feel compelled to grab the opportunity to spill their emotional guts.

There’s an ever-growing pandemic. We’re in the midst of what can only be described as a chaotic presidential election, millions are on the brink of financial ruin, and thousands more are marching in the streets night after night fighting for racial justice. So when someone asks, “How are you?” it’s only natural to want to respond, “You know what? I’m not great. Not great at all. In fact, I’m terrible, thanks, how are you?”

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But how deep is too deep an answer to give to family, friends, co-workers or the checkout person at the supermarket when they ask the polite question?

“Isolation is not a good counselor,” says Dr. Anthonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy as well as the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. “Loneliness is not good medicine ever, but it’s even worse medicine if you are at risk in the middle of a pandemic.” (The author of this story is an adjunct professor at USC.)

When this at-risk demographic is asked, “How are you?” some may feel more inclined to share, or even overshare, as it might feel like their one chance at a caring ear, Damasio says.

“Some people are by nature more open to sharing things,” he says. “I don’t think that has disappeared just because we are in the middle of bad times, health-wise and politically. That’s just reality. Some people are fundamentally more prone to sharing things that otherwise would be thought of as irrelevant or inappropriate.”

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However, the appropriateness of just how deep one gets on the contents of their personal 2020 hell should still be controlled by context. Context of how the person asked and who is asking.

“You don’t want to go into a story about your own problems when you are being asked something from a person that you hardly know,” Damasio says. “Some kind of caution and modesty is recommended.”

Sometimes there’s more nuance to how one should respond, according to Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert for more than two decades.

“People are taking these opportunities to say, ‘You know what, I’m not doing well.’ So when we ask this question, we really need to be more thoughtful as opposed to just stating the question without expecting to hear a real response,” she says.

As for how far people can go when sharing their emotions, Swann offered some advice.

With family

Here’s where people can jump right into the deep end with their emotions, according to Swann. “If a family member were to ask you how you’re doing, not only can we be more transparent, we absolutely should be because these are the folks who are closest to us,” Swann says. “They are the ones who may be able to be that listening ear or rally up other family members to let them know that we need more care and support. We should intentionally share more with our family members right now than anyone else.”


Sample convo:

Mom: How are you doing, honey? Daughter: Honestly, Mom... The pandemic is really getting to me and I'm feeling lonely.


With friends

While you can be open with friends, Swann cautions to save your most forthcoming revelations for your trusted inner circle. “Depending on the connection that you have with your friend, it is good to share,” she says. “I think people will take your cue in terms of how deep you go. Some individuals are looking for opportunities to be supportive, and they just won’t know unless you share. We should not be going through this entire experience alone.”

Sample convo:

Friend 1: Hey Bud, how you doing? Friend 2: Really? Not great. Can we share what's really going on?



With co-workers

Here’s one that may surprise you. Swann says you not only can feel free to be honest with your co-workers, but that you should make an effort to share. “I think because of the fact that we spend so much time with our co-workers, it is important for us to be fairly open and honest with them,” she says. “When we do this, it helps stabilize your work environment so that if you do let folks in and give them a peek of what you’re going through, it can really help you in your work environment. People will be more compassionate toward you if you’re not finishing projects or things aren’t coming together so well. We can’t walk into the workplace right now with letting people think that everything is OK when really things are not.”

Sample convo:

Coworker: Hey Stacey, how's it going with work from home? Stacey: I'm really starting to struggle with finding a balance.


With strangers

Now it’s time to zip it, according to Swann. “With total strangers, I do think we should refrain from sharing too much,” she says, noting it may not be a good idea to burden others with our issues when they can’t do anything to help us and may feel worse once we leave. “We have to be very careful that we don’t unload our challenges onto the other person and then walk away, because there’s nothing they can do about it. The difference between a friend, a co-worker or a family member is that even though you may share information with them that is somewhat unpleasant, there is something they can do. Your co-worker can help you take the load, your friends can call and check in on you, your family members can activate other family members to help, but that stranger really cannot do anything.”

Sample convo:

Store clerk: How's your day going, miss? Customer: Well, the least I can say is it's going.


Swann and Damasio agree it’s not only important to share how we’re feeling but to earnestly show interest in how others are feeling. And if you really don’t have time or energy to hear the response, Damasio suggests avoiding the question altogether by saying “I hope you’re well” instead.

If you do ask, do it with conviction.

“When we ask this question, ‘How are you,’ be intentional with it and really want to know how a person is doing,” Swann says. “It’s very important for us to be sensitive and considerate toward every person because we do not know what an individual may be going through or experiencing. And anything we can do to bring some levity to their life and to bring some peace and some joy — we should most certainly exercise that.”

She adds: “It’s so important for us to show kindness and compassion and humility to everyone because these are unprecedented times and we should most certainly call ourselves and call everybody to the carpet and say, do better and treat one another better.”