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.