A Better "How are you?"
Cultural niceties can make it challenging to answer “How are you?” honestly if you are feeling much more than, “Fine, thanks. How about you?” If you change up the phrasing of your question even slightly, though, it can often be enough to disrupt the automatic process that leads to uninformative and uninteresting answers. Here are some options for making it easier on others to answer you honestly, even if they’re not feeling “fine.”
(Feel free to tack on the word “lately” or “these days” to the end of any of these-- the temporal scope may help people answer more authentically, too.)
What have you been up to?
What’s been on your mind?
How have you been feeling?
What’s new with you?
How’s your life?
What’s new/exciting in your life?
When you ask one of these questions, folks may still find a way around answering genuinely. This can be for a number of reasons, including uncertainty that you actually want to know their answer. If you don’t get a “real” answer the first time you ask a “How are you” question, you can:
Model the level of vulnerability you’re hoping for with your own answer. If you want to make the other person feel comfortable expressing “negative” life events or emotions, this is a great place to do that, yourself, even if it’s mentioning a passing frustration or moment of difficulty.
Ask another “How are you” question again.
If you find resistance after a second question, you may either want to let it go or ask one last time, making sure that you give them an easy out if they’d rather not answer.
This might look like:
You: What’s new with you? (Asking the “How are you?” question for the first time)
Them: Not much, you? (They’re not answering authentically)
You: Well, I just started karate classes. I’m pretty awful at it, which is frustrating, but I also am really loving the peaceful mindset I find myself in after class. (Modeling a longer answer than “not much,” and modeling that talking about “negative” feelings is okay)
Them: That sounds like a pain, but ultimately worth it…?
You: Yeah, I think it is! What have you been up to these days?” (Asking a different “How are you?” question a second time)
Them: I’ve been busy with a lot of stuff. (A second inauthentic answer to a “How are you?” question)
You: I’m curious to hear what sort of stuff you’ve been busy with, but I’m also happy to chat more a different time. (Trying a “How are you?” probe for the third and last time, making sure to give the other person an easy way out if they’d rather not talk about it)
Them: No, that’s fine. It’s just that I’m filing for a divorce, and the whole process has been awful. (An authentic answer! They might not have shared this immediately because they may not have been sure if you were open to hearing that heavy of a response.)
Of course, you don’t always need to put in the effort to draw an authentic answer out of every person you talk to; you probably don’t have the time or emotional energy. However, being able to skillfully figure out how people are actually doing can be a useful tool when you are hoping to connect with someone. And even if it feels weird at first to ask something other than, “How are you?” it gets significantly easier the more you practice, and can be turned into a new automatic habit over time.
What’s your favorite version of “How are you?”