"How are you?"
"Not too bad, and you?"
"Not too bad."
and then, formalities aside, it's okay to progress to the meaningful words.
This social formality has always niggled at me. My inner literalist, never far from the surface, wants to ask if not too bad means "bad, but not TOO bad." But mostly I just cringe at the emptiness of the words. Look, Ma, zero calories.
Every once in a while I'll hear "how are you" and answer "terrible" or "awful". Sometimes I'll do it with a smile on my face and great good cheer in my voice, and approximately two thirds of the time my interlocutor will respond as if I'd said "great, fantastic", or, quoting my friend Mark, "any better and I'd cancel my OHIP." Sometimes I'll drop the charade and actually answer, "pretty shitty today", in a tone of voice that suggests "shitty" would be an improvement. And then I'll observe the inevitable awkward pause.
He went off script here. Damn it. I don't have time for this. "Oh, that's too bad. I gotta get the hell out of here."Hope you're better soon. 'Bye."
Meanwhile, you can rest assured if I ask how you are and you answer that you're not...what I'm doing and where I'm going can wait. I'm not suggesting this makes me a better person...in this hurry-hurry-hurry world it probably puts me at a significant disadvantage. I don't care. I don't play games with my words, as much as I love to rearrange other people's to make jokes out of them. I make a real effort at sincerity in every word I speak, even the common ones. This leaves me taken aback by the number of people who will answer "how are you" with "fine" when they are CLEARLY not fine, they're anything BUT fine, they're coarser than a sailor on shore leave. But if they really wanted to talk about their obvious distress, they'd at least have mentioned it. More emptiness, pulled over emotional pain. I can't stand that.
I want to ask people to answer "how are you" honestly, but it seems too forward of me. I want to ask people to ignore me completely rather than mouth empty words at me, and that just sounds bitter. But really, they're words of one syllable that we all learned as young children. I can remember writing my Mom little notes in first grade "how are you Mommy I am fine." The other answers to 'how are you' are one syllable each as well: "Bad. Sad. Mad." All of which are perfectly legitimate feelings that I won't ignore if I'm given permission to talk about them.
The other empty phrase comes towards the end of a virtual or phone exchange, and it goes like this: "we should get together".
Please don't say that to me unless you mean it, because I remember hearing or seeing those words and they hurt when days, weeks, or months pass without any further reference to them. It pains me to realize just how often I've heard this, and it pains me even more to realize just how often I've said it, heard something suitably enthusiastic in response....and then...nothing. You know what goes through my mind then? A replay of the conversation, with what I imagine was your internal monologue.
Ken: "We really should get together! I've missed you!"
I never want to see your ugly pug face again, you sick excuse for a dog turd. And did you say you've MISSED me? Those better have been empty words, or I'm calling the cops.
"Yeah! That'd be great! I'll get back to you on that!" Jesus, he's so....ick.
I don't think I'm the only one walking around with irrational (I hope) nuggets of self-loathing. Those nuggets rise like vile burps whenever I'm confronted with the thought that this person, who said they wanted to see me....really didn't mean that at all. There must be some other way to take that rejection, but in all seriousness I don't know what it is.
Empty words. I wish we lived in a world where the sincerity of words was easier to assess.