When I first arrived at Harvard freshman year, it was also my first time being in the US. Many things that happened during that hectic first week of school is now blurry memory, but one thing still stands out to me, more than three years later: I did not know how to reply when people asked me “How are you?”
Whether it’s the cashier at Starbucks, the receptionist at the school clinic, or the card swiper at Annenberg—the first thing everybody said to me after “Hi” was “How are you?” These greetings never failed to leave me puzzled, throwing me into a dazed silence that I tried to alleviate by smiling awkwardly. By the time I thought of something to say, the moment had already passed and my addressee had shifted their attention to the next customer.
There are several reasons that I’m puzzled by this ubiquitous question-greeting. First, it is often said in situations where nobody has the time to actually talk about how they are. I can probably spend a total of two seconds with the Annenberg card swiper before I have to move on to make room for someone else in the line. How can I squeeze in “I’m feeling a little nervous about my section today because I didn’t do my readings, but I’m excited to go to an event later tonight and see my friends. I’m kinda stressed about what I should do this summer, and I have no time to figure this out given all the schoolwork. I also haven’t called my parents for many days but I can’t find the time. My roommate is too noisy. Why is freshman year so hard?” in such a short time?
Second, people didn’t look like they expected an actual answer from me, or cared to hear what it was. If I actually talked about how I was feeling, I would be regarded as a socially awkward person who has low emotional intelligence. In other words, socially apt humans are expected to know that “When people ask you ‘how are you’, don’t actually tell them how you are.”
After a few days of living in the how-are-you land, I finally figured out the correct answer to the question, which is: “Good, how are you?” I even learned to rattle off some other colorful variations of the same thing, such as “Not bad, yourself?” “Fantastic, and you?” I still remember clearly that the first time I fluently replied to the question without any hesitation, I felt like I just crossed the first hurdle on my quest of fully integrating into American culture. I felt socially apt, emotionally intelligent, and assimilated.
But later on, as I said “Good, how are you?” over and over like a mantra, I started to have a weird feeling in my stomach that left me saying to myself: “Why did I just say that? That didn’t sound like me.” I’m a pragmatist and minimalist when it comes to talking. I don’t like saying useless or insincere things. Thus, saying “how are you” leaves me feeling like a hypocrite: I know I do not have the time or care enough to actually hear the real answer. And my addressee knows that. So we are just playing a game of exchanging communication that both of us know is shallow and useless. Replying to and saying “how are you” felt like conforming to a social custom that I don’t necessarily agree with.
I grew up in a world where nobody ever said “how are you.” There is no ready translation for it in Chinese. When I run into a friend in China and need to make conversation, I would say “What are you doing” or “Where are you headed”—information that would actually be interesting to me.
(On another note: all Chinese students are taught in elementary school English classes that the correct answer to “How are you” is “Fine, thank you.” We were literally told to memorize this as the one and only answer. The formulaic nature of the exchange tells us something about how this Western greeting is perceived in China. Even though I learned about this in elementary school, I did not expect to actually hear “how are you” in the real world; thus my confusion during the first week of Harvard.)
Ignoring its role as a everyday greeting, “how are you” is actually a very profound and weighty question. When we say it, we are asking someone about their physical, emotional and psychological state, the status of their whole being. If we were to write down a detailed record of any person’s such status at any point in time, it will probably be at least 5 pages long, single spaced. It’s the kind of stuff that therapists or clinical psychologists write down when they examine a patient. It should not be said lightly.
But in the US, there is only one correct answer to “How are you”, and that is “Good” (unless you are talking to someone really close to you who actually cares). And that applies even when I’m feeling sick, crummy, or depressed. How would you regard someone who says “Sad” when you first meet them and ask them “How are you”?
“How are you” punishes people who tell the truth. By forcing people to say “good” when they actually feel very bad, it may even accentuate their bad feeling since they have to put on a front of happiness to people who don’t know and don’t care about how they really are. What is meant to be a polite pleasantry can become strangely rude and hurtful.
The same goes for questions like “How’s your freshman year going?” or “How do you like Harvard so far?” These are just impossible questions to answer, and almost never solicit any useful response. What can you say other than “Pretty well?” I know from first-hand knowledge that many people’s freshman years went terrible, but I can imagine they all put on a smiley face and said “pretty well” when asked that question.
Around a week after move-in, I had an epiphany: in the US, “How are you” is just like “Hello”: it’s not a question, but just a greeting to acknowledge each other’s presence and start a conversation. People say it out of habit, and sometimes just because they are stuck with somebody with whom they have nothing else to say.
After that, I learned to be “good.”