Monday, October 18, 2010

How Are You? (I Don't Really Want To Know)

It's a rhetorical question, usually. We say it almost reflexively. We don't really want to know the state of your gall bladder or the latest chapter in your marriage horror story. But many people don't get that.

The other day I was in the grocery store. In the Express line. That means 10 items or less and make it snappy. Happened to be standing behind a woman who I served on a committee with several years ago. At the time, we had a few overlapping social, civic and professional circles so saw each other frequently. Not friends, exactly, but acquaintances. Had not seen her for some time, and after a cheery hello, asked (ill-advisedly, as it turned out) "How've you been?". Yes, Graces, I know--strictest interpretation of the question would determine that I did ask. But we were on the Express Line. In a grocery store. You know where this is going. She told me. Yup.

I got to hear about the death of the family pet. (The poor paralyzed peke had to be walked on a skateboard for the last months of his life, so I think it was a blessing.) The intricate details of the stomach virus that infected her entire family last week. The misery of her new job. (No sense of 'glad I've got one in the current climate'.) It was an endless, inappropriate emotional dump.

Now, I'm not asking you to lie, exactly. We all experience ups and downs. You don't have to say that everything is sunshine and roses if you've been going through a bad time. But you don't have to spew your drama and trauma all over my groceries. Here are some appropriate responses in that situation:

--"Well, it's been a rough couple of days/weeks/months but we're managing."
Graces can then respond, "I'm sorry to hear that. Maybe we could have coffee or lunch sometime soon." During coffee or lunch, your beleaguered friend can update you and perhaps you can help in some way.

--"This hasn't been a banner year for us, but it's nice to see you. How's everything with you?"

--"I've been having some health issues, but I'm up and out today so that's good. How've you been?"

Less ideal but better than my grocery line mate:
--"Not exactly perfect supermarket chatter, but I'm going through a divorce. I'll catch up with you next week and fill you in."

So you see, it is possible to be truthful without abusing emotional space.

If you are on the receiving end of one of these effusions, you have a couple of escape routes:

--"Gosh, that sounds awful. Why don't I call you later and we can plan to get together. No sense in sharing your private biz with everyone in the supermarket."

--"I'm sorry to hear that. I certainly hope things turn around for you. Here, let me help you with your bags." (Note clever strategy here; by helping with the bags you are essentially ushering the misery-hemorrhage out the door.)

The other alternative is to simply remove the question "How are you" in all of its forms from your conversation. Greet others thus:

--"Good Morning, Fine weather we're having."
--"Nice to see you."
--"Great coat/shoes/hat/bustier. Love the color!"

But beware, Graces. It's harder than you think. "How are you" sneaks out like teens on prom night. Avoiding it and its associated risks requires ceaseless vigilance and a hearty draught of Grace and Grit.

I leave you with this cautionary illustration of TMI gone beyond my wildestfears....

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