“Hello. How are you?”

Although I started this blog about two years ago, I have not kept it up during that time. Instead I have focused more on my professional blog, A Teacher’s Ruminations, that I try to keep updated as much as possible. During this holiday break, I decided to dedicate this blog space as a personal journal, and a place where I can try out some writing moves and techniques. In that spirit, what follows was inspired by a recent post in Taught by Finland.

When greeting each other, Americans will often say, “Hello, How are you?”, but they don’t really want to know how you are. They just think it’s a polite thing to do. And, it is. Normally, it isn’t anything to complain about when everything is going well, and the answer to, “How are you?” is simply, “Fine.” However, when you are not feeling fine and you want to talk about it, no one really wants to hear it. You can tell this is the case by observing the listener’s body language and the way she or he starts to lose interest after the first few minutes of your lament.

On the one hand, I understand this. Who wants to hear that you’re miserable or having a bad day at work, for example? Those situations inevitably turn into gossip sessions and people end up saying things that they later regret. Usually it’s easier to just say, “Fine, thank you,” and move on.

In many other societies, when people ask how you’re doing, they really want to know. Does that make Americans heartless and senseless, and everyone else kind and considerate? I don’t know the answer to that, and that is not the purpose of this writing. What I want to figure out is the best way to respond to this query without feeling worse – either not listened to at all or falling into a gripe session. Maybe it’s simply a matter of knowing who to talk to about how you’re feeling rather than just anyone who crosses your path. And, maybe it’s knowing social mores well enough that you know who will listen to your lament and who won’t. Oh, and by the way, sharing how you’re feeling at the moment doesn’t necessarily have to be a lament; it could be the opportunity to share wonderful or exciting news.

I think knowing who you are talking to is important. And, this edict holds true for the person who initiates the greeting, as well as for the responder. So, maybe one idea I’m trying to promote is that all of us need to be more culturally savvy. We need to know who we are talking to and then act accordingly so that there is no embarrassment, no feelings of not being listened to, no feelings withheld or suppressed. Doing this may make for healthier groups of people and relationships. And, in the New Year, I am all about striving for healthy living and better communication.

For my part, I am going to prevent feeling disappointed because someone didn’t listen to my sad lament or complaint. If health and communication are to be my two sub One Little Words (just came up with this idea through this writing process), then I need to focus on paying attention to my intuition and making better choices about who I interact with on an intimate friendship level. Just because I am feeling vulnerable or attacked doesn’t mean I can spill my heart out to everyone I meet. Some will respond well but most will not. No one wants to be around someone who is sad or grumpy all the time.

So, maybe Americans have the right idea after all: be polite and ask how someone is but don’t invite too much conversation unless there’s an established friendship that you can trust. Either keep walking or change the conversation.

I have come full circle on this issue even though I didn’t start down that path. My intent was to condemn this seemingly hypocritical American practice and encourage people to share how they are truly feeling to anyone who asks them. However, now I want to encourage cultural sensitivity on both sides and appropriate self-censoring as healthy practices that may enhance communication.

What do you think? Do you agree with what I’ve written here? I welcome your comments.

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