Why do we say “how are you doing?”

How are you doing? These four words carry with them so much. In the case of loved ones and friends those words can be the beginning of something beautiful. When used by strangers and acquaintances these words can incite anger. So many problems, yet so much potential seated within four small words.

My experience with “how are you doing?” is decidedly negative. In my current job, I hear that phrase virtually every single phone call and if a call is transferred from a different department I may hear that phrase more than once on a call. I say phrase as opposed to question because the vast majority of the time I hear it, it is spoken as a statement and not a question. It is either rapidly fired off as a statement, at the very beginning of the call, promptly followed by another statement and a legitimate question or it’s asked legitimately as a disingenuous question.

I find the vast majority of people use it in the first application. This first group of people, have no intention of you actually answering the question and despite the fact that they give you no room to answer, if you do happen to answer, they will surely ignore your answer to the question.

The second group of people will often give you a moment to answer, but this group is even more disingenuous than the first group. This group of people also do not care about the answer, yet their actions seem to imply that they do actually care. They give you time to answer, they often wait a certain amount of time for you respond and move on or some will even wait indefinitely. When you do respond, which is typical, because silence demands to be filled according to some, this second group really only wants one response. If you don’t respond with “I’m okay”, “I’m fine”, “I’m great!” or some equivalent, it is not acceptable. If you respond with a real assessment of how you are currently doing, you will either have the response ignored, be met with slight surprise (that you dared to take the question at face-value), or a half-hearted acknowledgement via a canned response and a moving on to their desired communication.

These two sets of people are in other words asking a question they have no intention of really knowing the answer to. For that first group of people there is no acceptable answer, the phrase is treated as a pointless string of words, used in the same manner as a pleasantry; the phrase is treated as an extension of “hello”. For the second group of people, it seems as though the only acceptable answer to the question is a short and simple “I’m fine” regardless of how you actually are.

What exactly is the point of “how are you doing?” If the vast majority of people do not want an answer to the question or don’t want a truthful response to the question, why should the question even be asked? Since these thoughts have been on my mind for many years, I purposely decided at one point to completely ignore the question from these first two sets of people. The reaction was swift and immediate. It did not appear to catch people off guard. The result is that I was met with anger or treated as I would expect someone to treat me if I was on the fringe of society, such as that of a cannibal or a serial killer. Unfortunately, because it affected my ability to do my job, I returned to reciprocating the disingenuous banter that people seem to require. On a side note, in my own personal life, I tend to still ignore the question/statement from people that do not know me or generally appear to be part of those first two groups discussed.

There is a third group of people that I believe show the true meaning of “how are you doing?” This third group in my experience is almost exclusively formed by friends and loved ones. This third group of people ask the question, not in passing, but they ask the question when it’s conducive to creating an actual conversation; when there is actually time to talk for a decent amount of time; when there is some sort of privacy to get into personal aspects of our lives; and most importantly they ask because they genuinely seem to care. Now that is not to say that all of the people in this third group view these words the same. Not at all.

There are some in this third group who feel the question is too vague to be honest and dislike the question. I have proposed that they have come to dislike the question, because like myself, they have probably endured similar experiences, as the aforementioned, with groups one and two. I believe they have a vague sense that people are disingenuous when they ask the question and it’s become rote or monotonous. Some of these people have expressed to me that they highly prefer a question that is more personal and specific: such as a question asking them about a situation that you know is occurring in their life.

Myself, on the other hand, I see “how are you doing?” as purposely general. I believe that the question, as it is, allows the recipient to decide what they want to share and/or what’s more pressing on their mind currently. Not to say that it doesn’t have potential issues. Even when I am asked the genuine question, I hesitate with how to answer the question at times. Often times I don’t have a quick answer off the top of my head as to how I am doing because I haven’t stopped to really take stock. After taking stock, sometimes I have to take into account who this person is that is asking, what their relationship is to me, and what they already know about me. Sometimes it is a question that I simply do not feel like answering and that could possibly be related to the negative experiences. It could also be related to how I’m currently doing or various other things, but either way there are times I just don’t care to answer.

Ultimately, the question “how are you doing?” is not negative or bad in and of itself. I believe it has gotten a bad rap, so to speak, because so many people use it disingenuously. But despite all the bad experiences I still have with it to this day, I don’t treat the question the same from everyone. For friends and family I typically welcome the question and appreciate what it symbolizes. For the vast majority of people, strangers and acquaintances, who ask this question in passing, I much prefer to ignore the question completely. What about yourself?

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