Back when I was 20, I spent a summer in Sweden. It was a real culture shock: the food, the people, the places. I had never been abroad before, knew VERY little socially, and--like many naive Americans--was surprised how many people had negative things to say about our country and our citizens.
One of the first complaints I remember? One particular Swede named Magnus who expressed his annoyance immediately upon meeting.
"How are you?" I asked, when I first shook his hand.
"You Americans," he huffed. "That's what I hate about you. You always say 'how are you,' but you don't care about the answer."
Hmmmm. I never quite thought of it that way.
Over brioche and cheese, I tried to explain that although "how are you" is a common U.S. greeting, it doesn't mean we're insincere. Seriously, if I take the time to ask how you are doing, I definitely --ok, usually--care about the answer. Otherwise, I'll just say "good to see you" or something more benign (hmmmm, maybe I'm faker than I think???).
Regardless, I've been thinking a lot about that question.
"How are you?" is a charged greeting--especially to a chronically sick person. Do I lie? Do I tell the truth? Do they care?
Below is how I responded to an old friend who asked recently via email.
Hi ________(insert name of well meaning friend here):
How am I??? Hmmmmmmmmm....
Well, that depends on what answer you are looking for.
If you want my pat answer, I am unbelievable (something I learned to say from Zig Ziglar...perfect if you are less than perfect, but don't want to be negative).
If you want my real answer, I'm OK; not great, but not awful...which is a relief from how things have been for a while.
There's a lot I could say about doctors, treatments, hope, despair, drugs, vitamins, ticks, conspiracy, chronic illness, juicing, and more, but I'll spare you the details. In summary: I'm still pretty darn sick, still getting tested for lots of different things, but much, much closer to a final diagnosis (We are about 97% positive I have Lyme Disease. Should know for sure on April 11th, which is my next doctor's appointment).
In the meantime, I try to keep busy. I blog everyday (www.AlterEverything.com), go out when I can, and keep a pretty strict routine of researching, watching what I eat, and other strange health rituals.
The main concern of my doctors right now is to get me healthy enough to withstand treatment; a game I think we are winning. Sadly, I'm not losing weight from the shenanigans (the one benefit many people usually reap with these kinds of illnesses), but I am learning a lot about myself, what I value, and what really matters...which has been surprisingly good...
Now, did he really want to know all of that???? I don't know.
Was it honest and from the heart? Yes, definitely.
In the future, when someone asks, I'll probably stick with "unbelievable" and fill in details if needed. In the meantime, the experience does raise a good question. Is "How are you" a greeting ...or an invitation?
Altered Today: Thinking before I speak, requesting your point of view, seeking better greetings/answers