Every conversation I have these days with someone who doesn’t live in my home—every FaceTime with a friend or family member, every reporting phone call—kicks off with a brief, awkward, accidental meditation on mortality. “Hi!” I say. “Hi!” the other person says back. “How are you?” I ask next, out of habit. And then we both spend a long moment gazing directly into the abyss.
How are we? People are sick and dying in alarming numbers all around us. Maybe we’re lucky enough not to be sick or dying, but any of us could be soon. Everyone we know is in danger. Our jobs, and really our entire financial futures, are in jeopardy. Are we really going to paper over these grim truths with the usual, compulsorily breezy “I’m good! You?”
The innocuous “How are you?” at the start of a conversation—which is normally understood in American culture to be a polite way of expressing concern for a person’s well-being, and to which the socially agreed-upon response is “I’m good,” “I’m fine,” or “I’m doing well”—hits differently in the COVID-19 era. The coronavirus pandemic and its effects are dramatic and widespread enough that it’s safe to assume everyone’s life has changed for the worse in some way. This moment has laid bare the extent to which “How are you?” is a mere pleasantry and not an honest inquiry in search of an honest answer. To ask “How are you?” is either to make the conversation very gloomy, very fast or to force someone to lie straight to your face and say they’re fine. We need better questions to ask.
The “How are you?” “I’m fine” exchange has typically been a bit of a deceptive one. As Emily Rine Butler, who teaches linguistics at the University of Florida, explained to me in an email, the dialogue is an “adjacency pair,” or a short two-person script that is performed in a particular order. One type of adjacency pair is “question-answer,” and another is “greeting-greeting”—while “How are you?” “I’m fine” may seem like a question and an answer, in practice it functions more like two greetings. “Even though it looks like the person is asking an open-ended question, we treat it as a closed-ended question, in which ‘good’ or ‘fine’ is all that is ... preferred/expected,” Butler wrote. Fulfilling the expectation to say you’re “fine” when your life is even just a little less fine than usual can be hard. Saying “I’m fine” when the honest answer is “I’m sleepless, tense, and full of dread because my whole life is oriented toward trying desperately not to catch a deadly disease” can feel like an outright farce.
Given that the particular stress of the current moment stems from illness, this is also probably the worst possible time to be a society that uses “How are you?” “I’m fine” as the standard two-person greeting. “Health and whether a person is sick or not is monumental right now,” says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships. “It’s hugely important. It’s what’s on everybody’s mind.” Tannen points out that in certain parts of Asia, a common greeting exchange goes something like “Have you eaten yet?” “Yes, I’ve eaten rice.” Asking “How are you?” out of politeness during a pandemic is like asking “Have you eaten yet?” during a famine: Not only does the question draw all involved parties’ attention to the terrible circumstances at hand, but the expectation of a polite response negates the possibility of an actually informative answer.
There is, however, precedent for adjusting what’s customary or polite in extraordinary times. Lizzie Post, a co-president of the Emily Post Institute and the great-great-granddaughter of its namesake manners expert, pointed out to me that a World War II–era edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette included a special wartime supplement, in which Post urged dinner-party hosts to abandon the established custom of serving every guest a hearty portion regardless of the size of their appetite, in order to minimize food waste. She also encouraged young women to disregard her earlier advice not to write “impulsive” letters to their “boy friends,” now that many of those boy friends were fighting in the war. In wartime, the supplement reads, “nothing is more welcome to the normal home-loving man (or girl) than to hear his name called when the mail is handed out.”
A lot of what was considered proper before the war, in other words, seemed downright rude after the war began—and the same has happened to certain social rituals in the coronavirus era. Offering a hug or a handshake is no longer a polite way to greet someone. Keeping your distance from a friend you see at the grocery store and crossing the street when you encounter another person on the sidewalk are now among the most considerate things you can do. As Lizzie Post pointed out, Emily Post wrote in the 1920s that the correct response to “How do you do?” was always something along the lines of “I’m doing well, thank you,” even if the respondent was in fact completely miserable. But clearly she also understood that sometimes the rules have to be reversed or relaxed in accordance with the times. Emily Post may have agreed, then, that the expectations around “How are you?” should change when the question is inviting discomfort and heartache instead of lively dialogue.
Of course, there are contexts in which “How are you?” is usually a polite way into a conversation about something else (work, for instance), and then there are contexts in which you really are asking for an update on someone’s emotional and psychological state. In those conversations where “How are you?” functions as a perfunctory greeting and nothing more, it’s time to just drop the question altogether and ask something else, something that doesn’t send the respondent off to plumb the depths of how they’re doing in the middle of a global pandemic only to resurface with “Oh, pretty good.” Other questions might work better as a conversational warm-up or quick check-in. Tannen is partial to “What am I interrupting?” as a conversation starter for phone calls. Meanwhile, Butler recommends “Are you still holding up okay?,” which can work as a succinct check-in before moving the discussion to other matters: It tacitly acknowledges the circumstances but nudges the respondent toward a succinct yes-or-no (or “More or less!”) answer. In my own conversations, I like to go with “What’s your day been like so far?,” which moves the long-term circumstances into the backdrop and asks for only a small, trivial morsel of information.
But with close friends and family, especially, continuing the mutual charade of “I’m fine, thank you” can seem pointless when both sides know that neither of them is fine. These settings are where “How are you?” belongs these days: where the asker is prepared for an honest answer.
If we want to take the extra step to show our loved ones that we’re really asking, though, and not just greeting them as we might have done in normal times, reaching for a question that more explicitly asks after their emotional or psychological well-being might help. “How are you coping?,” for instance, signals that you don’t expect whomever you’re talking with to be doing great, and that you are genuinely curious about how they’re handling things. “What’s been on your mind lately?” suggests openness to a deeper conversation. You might also follow up on a worry or concern they’ve mentioned before, and check in on how they’re feeling about it now.
However you choose to start your conversations during quarantine, perhaps the most important thing is to ask a genuine question that invites a genuine answer. One of the kindest gestures we can extend to others in a time like this is to make clear that they don’t have to pretend they’re fine.