Róisín Ingle: How are you? Three little words that hold more weight than ever

How am I? I’m F.I.N.E. – f**ked up, insecure, neurotic and emotional

How am I? I’m F.I.N.E. – or F***ed up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. Photograph: Getty

How am I? I’m F.I.N.E. – or F***ed up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. Photograph: Getty

 

How are you? They used to be, according to researchers at Harvard Business School, the three most useless words in any communication. Useless, they reckoned, because the person asking the question didn’t really want to know and the person responding wasn’t going to be honest anyway.

The “how are you?” opening conversational gambit was dismissed by the Harvard boffins as a lost opportunity, a meaningless exchange resulting in little if any real connection.

Then a pandemic happened. As 2020 unfolded, the question became increasingly meaningful – and so did the replies. Arguably, the simple three-word query “how are you?” holds more weight than ever now in the board Zooms of the corporate world but especially when it comes to those we’re closest to.

When we ask it these days we actually want and expect and are prepared for an authentic answer. When it is asked of us now, we understand that the person asking it is actually invested in our reply. We didn’t always want the answer before. We weren’t always invested. Well, I wasn’t anyway.

I didn’t actually mean 'how are you?' I’d complain to nobody in my head

I have a close relation who, even in pre-Covid times, took the question seriously, an approach I didn’t always appreciate. “How are you?” I’d ask and there might be silence or, worse, a sigh. And then he’d start to actually tell you exactly how he was – the cheek – and you’d listen politely, even though you hadn’t been in the market for a deep and meaningful at all and yet suddenly here you both were.

I didn’t actually mean “how are you?” I’d complain to nobody in my head. I meant hello. I meant hi. I meant let’s kick off this conversation, let’s get on quickly to all that surface stuff. This year has wiped out the surface stuff. It has changed the nature of all our how-are-yous.

How are you, we ask and what we mean is, how are you coping? How is this affecting you? What level of pandemic anxiety are you at now? Where are you finding joy? What is bringing you down and lifting you up and can I help with any of it at all? How are you? As Micheál Martin put it last week, we’re all “fed up”. No point pretending. Not any more.

My friend visits an older woman for a couple of hours every week as part of an intergenerational-befriending programme. “How are you?” my friend asks at the start of their weekly encounter. “Oh, I am fine,” she says. “Apart from the depression and the isolation and the loneliness and the constant pain from that old injury”.

With the uncomfortable truths out of the way, they sit companiably and watch television and talk about their lives. They drink tea and eat cake and chat until one of his children rings him and says “when are you coming home, daddy?” and the older woman says gently “go home” and so, wiping crumbs and putting cups on the draining board, he does.

How are you, I ask my friend on a stroll around St Stephen’s Green in pale winter sunlight. “Good,” he says. He’s been exercising a lot through lockdown and is feeling fitter and looking forward to moving into a new house. Leaping towards optimism, towards a vaccine, he’s glimpsing a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel.

It could be that you feel institutionalised after this second lockdown

“We’re on the home stretch now,” he says, as the children bury themselves in a pile of burnished leaves and emerge like woodland creatures from hibernation, the leafy vestiges of a recently departed season clinging to their hoodies.

How are you? No, I swear, I really want to know. Perhaps you feel, with the latest loosening of restrictions, free as a bird as you plan your trips to every restaurant, cinema, hairdresser and large retail emporium, liberated at last.

Maybe you are wary, like an unfurling hedgehog emerging too soon, knowing Covid-19 doesn’t take a break for Christmas, picking and choosing your outings strategically weighing each one up carefully against the other.

It could be that you feel institutionalised after this second lockdown. A trip to the cinema feels so counter-intuitive now that you can’t even bring yourself to book the tickets, and anyway there are so few people allowed in to the venue that they are probably sold out.

You’ve locked down so hard, life has lost its lustre. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about anything.

How am I? Good friends send me texts, colleagues and acquaintances slide kindly with the question into my Twitter DMs. I haven’t been sleeping too well. My body feels itchy for no reason.

But I am doing okay, I tell them. I’m fine.

Everyone knows what fine really stands for, of course.

It’s what we say when we don’t want to get into a deep and meaningful. A lot of the time we are F.I.N.E. (f**ked up, insecure, neurotic and emotional).

How are we?

We’re doing F.I.N.E.

And these days there is no shame in admitting it.

roisin@irishtimes.com