The Utter Weirdness of Small Talk in a Pandemic

Pleasantries amid a global health crisis are woefully insufficient. They are also what we have.

The Atlantic

On Tuesday evening, the actor Katey Sagal—star of Married … With Children and Sons of Anarchy—sent a very simple tweet to her half-million followers: “Checking in with everyone. How are you doing?”

The replies to her question were revealing. “Scared, anxious, stressed coated in a thin layer of hope,” went one. “Doing fine 😊hoping that this nightmare will be over soon though,” went another. One person mentioned that they were coping by watching Sons of Anarchy. Another mentioned that they were getting through by eating ice cream. (What kind? Sagal asked. Rocky Road, came the reply.) There were also less-cheerful responses. “Terrible,” one person wrote. “I’m an unemployed bartender. Never been unemployed in my life. I couldn’t be more terrified.” Another responded: “Hanging in there. Working from home until mid April. Mom is under Hospice care at her nursing home and, as of today, we can no longer visit. That really kills me.”

In some ways, those answers merely reveal the intimacy of celebrity in the age of social media. But they also suggest a much more specific state of affairs, as the COVID-19 pandemic hits the United States: Sagal’s simple question elicited answers of hope, of chaos, of fear, of heartbreak, of resilience. In ordinary times, “How are you doing?” and “How are you?” are polite but perfunctory: They are questions that aren’t really questions, though they might yield answers (the equally dutiful “I’m fine, thanks”). Just as in other languages—¿Cómo estás? Ça va? Nĭ hăo—the query is generally a simple greeting. I’ve occasionally made the mistake of taking it literally—when I’m not fine, saying so—and each time I’ve been made to remember that the honesty was a breach of etiquette. In ordinary times, people don’t ask “How are you?” because they want a real answer; they ask it because asking is what you do.

But these, of course, are not ordinary times. People are dying of a new and not fully understood illness. Many of those who are fortunate enough to be healthy are sequestered in their home, for a period that might be days or weeks but might also be months. And many, at the same time, are anxious and bored and underemployed and overemployed and stir-crazy and uncertain and lonely and terrified. Our context, at the moment, is crisis. And that fact alone brings a new meaning—and a new weight—to even the most banal of our pleasantries. I mention Sagal’s tweet because it neatly encapsulates what I’ve seen in my own life, over the past weeks: When people ask “How are you?” these days, they tend to mean it literally—and tend to receive honest answers. One very small consequence of COVID-19 is that it is turning “How are you?” into a question again.

In an apocalypse, the movies suggest, politeness is one of the first things to go. Manners, teetering as they do at the tippy-top of Maslow’s hierarchy, finally topple. The thin veneer of civilization peels and cracks, the self-interest takes over, and Darwinism reasserts its dull demands. The COVID-19 pandemic is not yet apocalyptic in the U.S. But the crisis, so far, has nevertheless been something of a rebuke to Hollywood: The pandemic has brought out human selfishness, yes, but it has also brought out human kindness. It has illustrated the deep interconnections among people—how profoundly interdependent we are, and how thoroughly we need one another. Humans are social animals, the biologists and psychologists are always saying. A pandemic is, on top of everything else, a sobering reminder of that.

But our language lags. American pleasantries, pretty much by definition, are pleasant. They are not well equipped to account for our tragedies. They are very good at softening the world’s rough edges. They are very good at finding small sites of communion, and at establishing minor vectors of empathy (“Such beautiful weather we’re having!”; “Did you watch the Nats last night?”). They are very good at narrowing the world. But they are distinctly less good at expanding it. When I ask someone “How are you?” these days, what I really mean is this: “How are you, health-wise? How are you, otherwise? How is your family? How are you coping? Are you coping? Have you been washing your hands? Do you have enough beans? Are you bored? Are you scared? Me, too.”

What I end up doing, though, is a version of what Katey Sagal did, when she asked her followers not just “How are you?” but instead the longer form of the query: “How are you doing?” I try to find ways—linguistic hacks, really—to emphasize that I don’t mean the inquiry in the typical, perfunctory way, but instead in a way that is calibrated to this terrible moment: No, really, how are you? I find myself doing the same thing a lot of people have been doing with me: modifying the standard question to make clear that it really is a question. How are you … considering? How are you doing … with all this?

And I try to do the same with my answers, too. “I’m fine,” at the moment, is not merely insufficient; it is a lie. And, so, I turn to a modifier for help. “I’m okay, considering.” “I’m okay, given [gestures sadly at the world].” “I’m okay, all in all.” These replies are not graceful or specific, but at least they are honest. I really am doing okay in the scheme of things, for now—I’m healthy and employed and at home with people I love—but I’m also very much not doing okay. Because no one, right now, is doing okay.

Americans have a well-known bias toward optimism—the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book on that subject—and it is a habit of mind so deeply ingrained that it is present at the basic level of language. Pleasantries themselves are optimistic things; they insist on seeing the bright side of any situation. They look at the rainy weather and note that it’s supposed to clear up by the weekend. They argue, cheerfully, that the Nats could be on their way to another World Series win. They ask “How are you?” and expect that the answer will be, automatically, “I’m fine, thanks.”

This is not, however, a moment of “I’m fine, thanks.” This is not a moment for the perfunctory or the superficially polite. It is a moment in which the best way to be polite—to be courteous, to be caring, to be well mannered—is to shed some of the traditional courtesies. Unvarnished honesty is its own form of politeness. Here are some of the posts you might find if you search for the phrase “I’m doing fine” on Twitter. “I think I’m doing fine, but I also just ran an empty microwave for three minutes with a bowl of food next to it.” “Friend: How are you? Me: I’m doing fine! How I’m actually feeling: [an animated GIF of a boy sobbing].” “Goooooood morning! This is fine, I’m doing fine. [an image of a banana in a microwave].” “I’m doing fine but i’m not okay.”

That last one got more than 2,400 likes. Little wonder: It is a fitting refrain for this moment. Fine, right now, is not fine at all. Pleasantries don’t work well during a time when so little is pleasant. But they’re what we have. “Hope you’re well,” I’ll sign my emails, still, and the 3.5 words may be the same as they were before, but they are different. I mean them differently. I mean them more sincerely. And here’s something else I really do mean: I hope you’re well, too.