Like the human body, English conversation retains certain vestigial features. Some of these are malignant, in that they impede lively discourse. Here I address the most common and damaging example I know of: the phrase, “How are you doing?”
This is a staple greeting. Throughout most of the United States and beyond, the phrase follows “hello” almost by reflex. It makes sense in theory. Asking about subjective well-being gives us immediate access to our conversation partner’s personal life, which supports building relationships. Furthermore, the question’s vagueness politely allows plenty of room to choose a topic.
This may be why the phrase has been widespread at least since Shakespeare1. Alas, far gone on the days of queen Gertrude’s response: “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel… ” Instead, the typical modern answer sounds something like this: “fine.” In fact, I rarely hear any other response.
Fine‽ I think, flabbergasted. You could have talked about anything! You could have launched into a rant about the weather or the nature of well-being in society! You could have pursued the opportunity to make an ally, spread an idea, or build rapport on common ground! Instead, you combust all the myriad branches of possibility with a single syllable: “fine”!
I should probably mention that, until very recently, I always made this mistake. Sometimes, an honest answer feels like a social gaffe. This wastes time and contributes nothing to breaking the ice. We might as well just leave it at “hello.”
Allow me to offer an alternative. The next time you greet someone, don’t resort to this inefficient ghost of a greeting. Don’t ask “how are you doing,” ask instead “what are you doing?”
This simple change has many benefits:
- Its newness catches your conversation partner off-guard, luring them out of the chilly “stranger mode” of conversation and into a truly open discussion.
- The focus lingers on their work. Rather than tear their attention from the task at hand, they can discuss it.
- It’s concrete, which leads to better thinking habits.
In the spirit of balanced inquiry, let’s look at the drawbacks:
- It draws long and expository conversations compared to the traditional “how are you doing” question. If your intent is acknowledgment rather than discussion, you may prefer “how.” However, I would object that asking someone about their health when you don’t actually care is dishonest. Maybe don’t do that.
- Sometimes you already know what someone is doing. They’re visibly walking to class or eating. You can modify the question in these situations: “what’s your next class,” or “what will you do after lunch?” A little thought easily supplies strong conversation starters.
- It may come off as nosy. I think this is actually pretty rare, but make sure to pay attention to context and the person you’re talking to.
These drawbacks are all limited. In my experience, it’s almost always more effective to ask “what are you doing” rather than “how are you doing.” If you retain this habit over time, you may experience more enlightening conversations and a slightly enlivened social life.