Wednesday, March 11, 2015

5 Awkward Ways To Answer the Question "How Are You?" For Introverts

Ever entered an elevator at your workplace or apartment and see a familiar face that asks, "Hi, how are you?" or some version of that. This is typical in Western culture, especially in the US. When I was studying abroad in Australia, I regularly get asked, "How are you going?". To the unfamiliar ear, the Australian way of asking can easily be misinterpreted as an inquiry of the method with which you plan to travel somewhere.

Nonetheless, being from a Chinese upbringing, the way to ask "How are you?" is perhaps even stranger to the foreign ears. We often hear our elders ask each other, "Have you eaten?". This question can be asked at all times of the day, even when it is not near meal times. How strange is that?

Some people may think that I am over-analyzing this simple but courteous question. But is it really courteous? In the US, when people ask "How are you?", they typically expect you to reply, "I'm good, thanks. How are you?". Any other answer will shock them. I had the great fortune of learning this in my first year of studying in the US. Being the brutally honest person that I am, whenever someone asks me how I was, I typically attempt to tell them about my day, only to notice that they actually have no interest in hearing what I have to say. I soon realized that people asked "How are you?" only as a courtesy, without having the intention to actually find out how I was actually doing.

Not only that, some people even believe it is over-sharing if I attempt to share how I am actually feeling, especially when he/she is not so familiar with me. The thing that bothered me the most was, if you did not want to know how I was actually doing, why did you ask? Call me a robot, but I was programmed to ask only if I am interested in the answer.

That said, over the years, especially since spending almost four years in the US, and 6 months in Australia, I have been able to program myself to answer this troubling question, "How are you?" in five simple ways.

1. Conversation Starter (if I am feeling talkative)

"I am good, thanks. I notice that life is treating you well. What's your secret?"

The above answer says something positive about the person and encourages the person to become more familiar with you as well as to loosen up. If I am lucky, that person will even share some valuable experience with you. As an introvert, this is a perfect way to flip the question around and return to the comfort of being the listener. You get bonus points if you use the above line on extroverts.

2. Conversation Ender

"I'm fine" (with a brief smile).

This shows that I am just not in the mood to talk. Whatever that is happening in my life, I have no intention to share it with you. I don't even have the energy to fake it until I make it. It doesn't necessarily mean that I am having a bad day. It just means that I don't think you are truly interested in knowing how I am actually doing, so please stop asking. I must admit that this is not a great way to make new friends.

3. Autopilot

"I'm good, how are you?" (with a slightly longer smile).

An improvement on No.2. At least it does not entirely shut that person down. I still don't really want to tell you about my life because I don't think you sincerely want to know (or even have the time to listen). I equally have no interest in knowing how you are doing because I am simply not familiar enough with you, but I don't want to appear rude. I have recently programmed myself to say this as a reflex action because really, who wants to hear how shitty my day went?

4. Brutal Honesty

(With a deep sigh) "Life sucks (or some version of it). I am... (proceed telling about your problems for the next 23 minutes)..." 

A real mood killer. While my parents taught me to be an honest person, I came to realize that no one really wants me to be that honest. Negativity breeds more negativity. In an otherwise perfectly fine day, he/she now feels obliged to at least listen to you and perhaps offer a solution to your problems. Besides, remember that the other person really has no interest in hearing about my day. And when someone tries to offer an unsolicited solution, some of us may lash out because all we needed was someone to listen. This is usually a lose-lose scenario and I no longer use this line with strangers.

5. "I No Speak Ingrish"

(Just smile and nod)

Shortest and sweetest answer of all. This can easily be deployed in Western countries. With my Asian looks, many people assume I don't speak very good English. This allows me to get away without answering any question I don't feel like answering. Like "How are you?". This just means that I am aware that you really have no interest in knowing how I am, and I don't feel like lying to you. I am not feeling good, and I don't want to feel obliged to say that I am good. I may not also want to run the risk of having you deploy No.4 on me.