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.
Read: Humans are too optimistic to comprehend the coronavirus
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.