I can be such a busybody.
Like so many women, I’m a multi-tasker who wears many life hats. Wife. Mom. Daughter-caregiver. Wage earner. Friend. My life is organized across 9 color-coded calendars, and to-do lists are my constant companions. Even as I check off items, I realize the lists aren’t actually going anywhere. They’re like squatters – perhaps shifting position and moving around a bit, but always there. Always hanging around.
When I’m a busybody, I’m getting A LOT done. But I also sometimes lose something in the process. It’s often easy for me to hover in business mode and miss moments. Not the big moments, necessarily – the small ones. The tiny exchanges with others that can actually stretch and grow our perspectives and lives in a pretty big way.
Case in point: The common question we often ask and receive, “How are you?”
I was overdue to see one of my long-time doctors. Professional, yet easy to talk to, my doc and I have exchanged countless stories about our families and careers for over 15 years. We both work hard to balance family and work time. And her kids are at least 10 years older than mine, so I’ve always appreciated her mom advice.
I entered the exam room, feeling the appointment was just another much-delayed item on my ever-growing to-do list. With the arrival of a new school year, work deadlines, and preparing for 7 birthdays in 4 weeks, I was on a serious roll. Each day that week was an exercise in Get It Done. I literally felt I had no time to waste. I was in SuperWoman mode, and my All Business persona was in high gear.
So, although I was genuinely glad to see my doctor, I began with the usual “Hi, how are you?” And quite honestly, I secretly hoped for a simple “Fine, thanks” response so I could wrap up my appointment quickly and get to the next items on my list.
She said, “Okay.” But the look on her face said otherwise – and instantly jogged my memory. This appointment had been reset because of a recent death in her family. Embarrassed by my insensitivity, I slowed down, looked her in the eye and offered my genuine condolences.
She took a breath, swallowed and lowered her voice. “We’ve known each other a long time,” she began. “So, I feel I must tell you: It was my daughter.”
I cried with her for almost an hour.
We often ask others, “How are you?” out of habit and routine. Doing so is mannerly and even expected. But, very often, we get – and give – auto-pilot answers in response.
And both people quickly move on to business at hand, to the next items on our lists. Meeting the work deadline. Serving up dinner. Responding to a text message.
Why do we do that?
Maybe we assume we’ll have to actually do something upon hearing the person’s response. That we’ll feel obligated to use “valuable time” to help solve the person’s problem or extend empathy – and get behind on what we must do that day.
And when asked “How are you?”, how often do we offer a half-hearted, half-honest reply? Do we mask our fatigue, frustration or other challenges we’re facing? I know I often do. And it’s usually because I don’t want to burden others or seem to be a complainer. A friend once told me while chuckling, “Well, I could tell folks how I really feel. But no one wants to hear complaining.”
Yes, sometimes we give quick answers because time is short, the other person seems distant, or timing feels off. But our knee-jerk responses often seem to be more out of habit than anything else. Too often, we simply shy away from seeking and giving honest responses – and choose to stay in a safe zone.
But, what if we dig just a hair deeper to register something more when the question “How are you?” comes up? To be something more? The kind of person who is more concerned and willing to listen. The kind of person who is more open to taking a risk and sharing an honest answer. Yes, we may feel uncomfortable or vulnerable in the process. I get it: That can be scary. It’s certainly a tough stretch-and-grow area for me.
Maybe we don’t always know how to be something more, but consider these suggestions.
Instead of just asking “How are you?”, it’s more like:
- How are you feeling about having to seek a new job at this point in your career?
- How are you coming along with healing from your illness or condition?
- How are you taking care of yourself with all on your plate?
And, instead of just responding “Fine, thanks”, it’s more like:
- I’m doing well overall, but life is pretty hectic right now. I’m juggling a lot.
- Life is kicking me in the pants, but I’m keeping the faith that this, too, will pass.
- I’m tired, to be honest. But I’m pushing on; my family needs me.
And guess what? When I’m brave enough to be vulnerable and answer honestly, happy surprises usually result. Bear hugs, a much-needed prayer on the spot, or simply a comforting reassurance that “we’re in the same boat.” Honesty out of vulnerability can remind us that, even when we feel lonely, we’re actually not alone, but are cared about and prayed for more than we often know.
Life will stay hectic, for sure. But let’s start ditching the usual “How are you?” and busybody “Fine, thanks” auto-response.
Let’s be something more.
How are you, when it comes to listening and sharing in a vulnerable, open way?