Friday, 11 November 2011

How are you? Fine, if you don't ask for details.

I've been practicing, in my head at least, a selection of different answers to the interminable question...

"How are you?"  (and all it's relatives "How are you doing?" "How are you going?" etc)

My mother, who lived to the ripe age of 90 (nearly 91), always said "Fine, if you don't ask for details."  This quote is attributed to Katherine Hepburn in a 60 Minutes interview in 1979 but to be honest I reckon Mum was saying it before then... still...  It's a good, slightly humourous response, that acknowledges there are problems and rescues the inquirer from having to pursue this topic any further.  There's only one problem - you can't say it day after day to the same person.  It is kind of a like a condom, it's only good for one protection!  (What would I know about condoms?  The last time I fooled around with a bloke "Safe Sex" hadn't even been invented!)  Ok, back on task...

I hate lying.  It has a physiological effect on me.  It significantly raises my anxiety level, which causes me to become tense, which causes muscle spasms, which increases PAIN, which is the whole reason why "Fine" is a LIE!!!  Now, I don't feel this way with strangers, shop attendants, receptionists etc, I clearly know that these strangers are just saying what people say when they greet someone... they don't give a brown rat's arse how I am feeling and I don't give a Friar Tuck what they think of me.  All's good on that front.

Friends are different.

Some of my friends are REALLY asking, they ACTUALLY want a truthful answer - I'll answer with some kind of assessment relative to how my day is for me.  Like last night The Actress asked and I said, "It's been a pretty bad day but I'm feeling a little better now." That was a truthful response and I was comfortable enough, and felt cared about enough, to be honest.  It didn't have to lead into a long discussion.

But what of my friends who are not really asking, the ones who say it as a matter of standard form?  I have tried "Same old same old" but in some ways that is a lie because with a condition like Fibromyalgia there is no "same old" it is constantly fluctuating, constantly moving, constantly finding new and unusual ways to make me feel like a steaming mess of excretia!

I don't want to be someone who is perpetually mired in my chronic problems so I need a truthful, guilt free way to brush off these superficial inquiries.  Sometimes the inquirer doesn't want an answer and sometimes I just don't feel like talking about it or thinking about it.  Sometimes I just don't want to whine or whinge or to be perceived as a whinger (which is despised in Australia where we are raised to be perfect specimens with the silent suffering stoicism embodied by our diggers and bushman).

I've been trying on answers like, "Shitty, but let's not go there", or the existential response, "It is what it is", and on those very rare good days, "Better than usual."  Sometimes I just avoid answering and bluster on to talk of them.  But too often I find myself lapsing into just saying, "Fine" or "Not too bad." and to be quite frank they are lies.  Even on my best of days I'm not fine.  I find the insincerity of these inquiries and, more to the point, the insincerity of my responses quite disturbing, they start the anxiety cycle.

Maybe I should go over the top in the other direction... Perhaps something like "Great, it's only a car running over me not a bus!" or "Better than a dead roo on the side of the road!" or "Terrific, I just did 13 rounds with Mike Tyson and I still have two ears!" or "The third level of hell is much damper than the second."  After all it's all in the delivery.  Maybe I could write a song to the tune of "I've Been Everywhere"...

I hurt everywhere, man
I hurt everywhere,
I know it isn't fair, man
My knees hurt as a pair, man
Of pain I have my share, man
But I hurt everywhere. (Need I go on?  You get the drift.)

On second thoughts I don't think that would go over very well to the huge crowds of one that I play to.

I struggle with this, it probably doesn't sound like much of a moral dilemma but it is to me.  I'm an overly sincere, very serious, frequently humourless person!

Dear Abby,

I don't want to lie to my friends when they ask how I am but I don't want to tell them the truth either... Please help.

[Signed] Aching in Sydney


  1. I tried 3 times to leave comments. Giving up. Blogger is a PITA, but I resonate w/the topic!

  2. But as a human being aren't you as "fine" as anybody else (leaving aside the question of how you're feeling)? Just a thought. I struggle with this question too.

    I like the existential "it's all good" as an affirmational line for general use on the basis that if it doesn't actually kill me it's making me stronger (with the added benefit that with enough repetition it may help me actually believe it (I've known people who've occasionally wanted to throttle me when I've said it because they've taken the view that I've overused it - where are they now?))

  3. Dear Aching in Sydney,
    It's okay to tell people who inquire that it stresses you out to discuss your health and stress makes the problems you have worse. Your real friends will be compassionate and not push you. I'm sure those people will tell you that if you do need to talk or vent that they will always be there for you. The rest don't really matter, so tell them you're a masochist. Pain reigns and everything is wonderful. I bet you won't get asked again!

    Signed Dear Abby

  4. My go-to is "Hanging in there", in various tones as needed. There is a neutral tone that works well when I really don't want to talk about it, or think they don't. Sometimes, whatever tone I use is a bit of a lie. But, the fact that I'm actually there, alive, saying those words, by definition, means that "Hanging in there" is NEVER a lie whatever is going on.

    My all-time favorite is "Amazing!", though I haven't worked up to using it myself yet. Learned it from a complete stranger who came to fix a machine in our office. I thought "well, that seems a little over the top...." then looked him straight in the eye and caught the mystery. "Oh!" says I, "I get it. You probably say "Amazing!" no matter what, 'cause it works for everything--"amazingly good", "amazingly bad", or "amazingly in between". That's a good one!"

    His response was extremely subtle, barely perceptible. A faint, near-nod of the head, a nano-sized glint in the eye, a microscopic upturn in the corner of the mouth. Then, he asked for directions to the machine and was on his way. Amazing!

  5. If your friends - like me - ask you how you are, it's 'cos we care and because we know you have good(ish), average and bad days. You can be honest. You can say you're feeling like something the cat dragged in, shat on, ate and then threw up again. We'll still love you. We'll understand. A response of the simple word "crap" won't be rudeness, it'll be honesty.

    As for acquaintances who ask as a matter of course as a conversational standard, that's a harder answer. I think Mildred's solution above is superb and can't offer anything better.

  6. I struggle with this too. It can be difficult to gauge whether someone is genuinely interested in hearing the truth (or a slightly gussied-up version) or whether they're just asking reflexively because it's polite. I find this especially true in phone calls. My strategy is often to say something like "I've had a rough day (or week-- insert time period of your choosing); how have you been?" It's truthful, but it gives the other person the chance to talk about his/her own life without following up about mine. The dear friends will inquire further, the others won't, and it saves us both the awkwardness that follows.

  7. What wonderful responses! Thank you everyone.
    AfterGadget (Sharon?) I'm sorry this site gives you a hard time!
    Belle - yes existentially we are all fine -- it's all good would never work for me (due to a negative connection with someone who said it all the time LOL) but I see how it could for others.
    Mildred - fellow masochist! I love it!
    Mary - I reckon Hanging in there is a good one... and Amazing! (let's all get existential again!)
    Carinthia - I will answer you truthfully every time. I promise.
    Megan you fellow traveler - I think moving on to the subject of them Them THEM is always a good diversionary tactic and yes the ones who care will come back to you.

    Cheers all!

  8. Yeah, this is one I've really struggled with too. I generally come back with "Yeah ... tired ... but yeah." It's vague as, acknowledges the problem without making a big deal, and it seems to make most people happy.