An acquaintance walks by at the grocery store while you’re hazily caressing the avocados and asks you how you are, because it’s only polite. “Oh,” you say, dropping the avocado, “I’m fine, how are you?” “Fine, fine,” they say, and everyone moves along.
You pass that coworker you kind of know in the hall and exchange nods: “How are you doing?” “Fine.” The world is no better place for it but no worse, either. It’s the smallest of small talk.
“How was your day?”
“Fine, and you?”
“Nothing much, all good.”
“How’s it going?”
These exchanges have the cast of sameness. They assure each participant in the conversation that we’re still here, we’re still breathing, though, really, our simple existence should have proven that.
More deeply, of course, these exchanges are part of a rough social code; as we go about our lives we must care about each other and the standard norms of etiquette at some bare minimum, just enough to acknowledge one another as humans, enough to smile and say hi — but not a lot more. After all, we don’t really care enough to know the deeper truth about anyone’s day, particularly if they’re not a close friend. “How are you?” is not an invitation for you to tell me about how you had to quit your corporate job because it was killing your soul and after that you struggled with a bit of a drinking problem and now you’re dating your ex-girlfriend’s best friend but feeling like it could get out of hand, Mr. Lyft driver. I’m not here to have you answer more than “fine.” I was just trying to be nice!
Personally, I stopped feeling fine on Nov. 8, and then it became very necessary, and almost visceral, to say so. My exchanges got kind of dark. “How are you?” an acquaintance would inquire. I tried out options ranging from vague negativity to previously unspeakable truths:
“Just got dumped, work’s a mess, America’s in crisis, and you?”
“I’m extremely angry and frightened about the state of the world and also personally disappointed by many of those around me. Is it possible you feel any different? If so, please excuse yourself from my presence.”
Instead of recoiling or running away in horror, most of my friends and even a few strangers leaned in. “Me too!” they’d say. Or “I’m sorry to hear that, yeah, things are pretty rough around here, too.” Suddenly …read more