How are you?”
When was the last time you asked this question—was it on today’s commute while buying coffee from your regular barista? Or 10 minutes ago in the office parking lot? Chances are, you’ve spoken it recently. And repeatedly. We’re programmed for relationship, and “How are you?” (or one of its many equivalents) is a handy way to interact with people we don’t know well. It fills acoustic “white space” with a neutral-to-mildly-positive acknowledgement, much like “Have a nice day” or (if you live in Georgia as I do) “How ’bout them Dawgs?”
Now let me ask you something harder: Did you listen for the answer?
I bring this up because of something that happened in 1967, which forever changed my view of the innocuous little pleasantry. After visiting Dad in the ICU, my mother left for home and bumped into an acquaintance just past the hospital’s revolving door. On being greeted with an exuberant “Hi, Libby! How are you?” Mom replied, “I’m okay, but my husband had a heart attack, and …” “That’s nice. Good to see you!” the woman said as she hurried by, clearly not listening for a reply.
More than half a century later, I still recall how stunned and hurt Mom was at the insensitivity of such “deafness.” I was just a teenager at the time, but her reaction made me think hard about small talk. I wasn’t savvy enough back then to come up with a replacement phrase for the deeply ingrained habit, but whenever “How are you?” left my lips, I started to watch for the response it elicited—and the opportunities it afforded. I also began to realize that, as Dr. Stanley said in the devotional Into His Presence, speech is a great gift from God:
What we say has a powerful effect … We are communicators, and we are always in the process of communicating something, even in our sleep. Because we are created in God’s image, and He is the greatest communicator, we have been entrusted with a tremendous ability.
And so, while many people consider small talk an annoying waste of time, I’ve come to recognize it as a valuable tool for connection—even if only to impart a whiff of the “fragrance of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15). All it takes is a little intentionality and maybe a slight tweak to what we’ve always done. So let me offer three easy suggestions:
Jill Donovan, host of Finding Your Get To, did a podcast called “How to Change a Life With One Word.” That word is the person’s name. (Kudos to Mom’s acquaintance, who did, at least, get this part right.) Donovan talks about “the power of a name, and the way it makes someone feel connected, respected, and important.” She points out, however, that we’ve largely forgotten how to use it and encourages bringing back this lost art.
Instead of “How are you?” try inviting a skosh more response with a question like, “How’s your morning so far?” or “Did you get caught in that rain on your way in?” And by the way, talking about the weather is not as trite as many assume—anything that affects us all can be a simple way to add some warmth to a sterile transaction.
Whatever you ask, listen—really listen—not only for the answer but also for the answer behind the answer. A change in eye expression or a sloping shoulder might indicate someone for whom a kind word could make a world of difference.
“Because we are created in God’s image, and He is the greatest communicator, we have been entrusted with a tremendous ability.”
You get the idea: Basically, switch off “autopilot” and try to connect with the humanity of each person you encounter. It could make somebody’s day—possibly even your own.
Illustration by Adam Cruft