Ritual of “How Are You?”

im-fine-1470450_1920Good morning, friends! How are you? In American culture, we have a ritual of greeting that follows variations on the pattern:

“How are you?”

“Fine, thank you. How are you?”


“How’s it going?”

“Good. You?”

These days, though, it seems our ritual greeting is a minefield. Many of us are not fine. Many of us are worried, afraid, exhausted, and preoccupied. Yet, to get into how we really feel seems like too much for a Zoom meeting with our colleagues, so we answer, “I’m fine.”

That “I’m fine,” though, can be emotionally and spiritually damaging. To constantly affirm that we are fine when we are anything but fine devalues our true experience and can make us feel even more alone.  As Ashley Fetters put it in her article for The Atlantic, What to Ask Instead of ‘How Are you?’ During a Pandemic, “This moment has laid bare the extent to which “How are you?” is a mere pleasantry and not an honest inquiry in search of an honest answer. To ask “How are you?” is either to make the conversation very gloomy, very fast or to force someone to lie straight to your face and say they’re fine. We need better questions to ask.”

Even a slight variation on “How are you?” can add depth to the inquiry and let the other person know you are not expecting a formulaic answer. Other questions we might ask include:

“How are you feeling today?”

“What’s going on for you?”

“What’s today been like so far?”

“How did you sleep last night?”

“What’s on your mind right now?”

These twists on our ritual greeting can lead to true sharing, which is essential (spiritually and emotionally) during this time of change, disruption, and worry.

There are times, though, when a deep conversation is not appropriate (such as a Zoom work meeting or in the check out line at the grocery store) and you need to move on to the business at hand. In those times, if you are invited into the ritual greeting of “How are you?” you could respond succinctly but differently, to acknowledge the upheaval in your own life and the life of the other person. Responses could include:

“I’m doing the best I can. I know you are, too.”

“These are tough times. I’m grateful for your work.”

“I’m feeling stressed, but it’s nice to have this time to work on this project (or fill in the blank) with you.

“I’m taking one day at a time. That’s all we can do right now. It’s so good to talk to you”

By slightly shifting our response, we let the other person know that it’s okay for them not to be fine, too.

Just like our ritual of shaking hands may be forever changed, this pandemic could alter the way we greet each other for the foreseeable future. It is my hope that our ritual greeting could be stretched and expanded to be more inclusive of the whole human experience. Being open to our emotions and the emotions of those around us makes us more intuitive and empathetic. We are not always fine and that’s okay.