On any given day, I can be ecstatic. Or caught in the clutches of insatiable curiosity. Or I feel the weight of exhaustion. I might only want to tuck myself away from the world with the building of a virtual cocoon. I can feel hyposocial, where people are OK, but my day would not be incomplete if I never uttered a word to a single soul all day. Or maybe I’m dealing with pain, physical or emotional, and simply doing everything I can do to put one foot in front of the other, counting down the hours, minutes until I can call it a day and become one with my couch. Maybe I’m stricken with grief or riding a rainbow only I can see.
But the world at large does not necessarily care about any of this. That’s not news, nor does it hurt my feelings. It took me nearly my lifetime thus far to realize that the feeling–or lack there of–is mutual. And that it’s OK.
I wonder, then, why society goes to such great lengths to convince itself and everyone in it otherwise?
Take, for example, the inane practice of using “how are you” as a fairly standard greeting. Perfect strangers will greet each other this way; why is this? It’s not even like the answer would really make much of a difference. Well, maybe it would, if given the chance, but it’s not as though either party will stick around long enough to hammer out the answer.
It took me a while to dissect this practice down to its minimalist elements. And then it took something scarier: honesty. Only then does the truth have a chance to emerge from the shadows and allow itself to be seen. Humans banish a lot of truths.
And the truth, the answer to the “why” question is, because it’s expected. Sure, you can simply exchange “hi”s and “hello”s and leave it at that. But the Next Step, should one choose to Go There (and good lord, so many of them do), is the frivolous “how are you?”
Oh, here we go. I roll my Inside Eyes, paste on my most genuine Outside Smile and answer “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”
Because it’s expected. Which makes me a sellout, an Agent of the Establishment, following the preset rules of the game, pretending to be a civilized human being, running around amongst other pretendingly-civilized human beings, neither of us actually thinking much about each other, but it would be a frownable offense not to acknowledge each other’s existence.
A murky world indeed.
The truth (more truths) is, there are several possible answers to the question. How I answer will often be determined by who’s doing the asking, what their expectations are, and the context in which our paths are crossing.
If our paths are tangential, and we are indeed perfect strangers passing each other on the stairs, then my answer is almost always “fine” or “good”, followed by a reciprocation of the question, to which the answer is a variation on the same tired theme.
(Do themes actually get tired? They probably do.)
And that, my friends, is where the conversation truncates, because neither of us is particularly interested in anything further.
And that’s OK. That, too, is expected.
(See how easy it is to talk to neurotypical people? Kidding!) 😉
If we share bloodlines of extended family status, then I will probably try to convince them that I’m boring, mainly because I think they’re boring, and I have found this to be a socially acceptable way of minimizing contact without offending anyone or looking like an arse. I’ll utter a few sentences about my latest projects, being sure to pepper them with a few scary biochemistry terms here and there, and they’ll decide that my cousin with the latest sports scores (and who, unlike myself, actually watches the games) is more interesting, and then the onus is on them to plot an escape route. That was my plan all along, but they don’t hold it against me because they believe it was their idea. (And that’s about as “manipulative” as I get.)
Bonus Point: this strategy also presents a way in which I can communicate to them proof of how rah-rah productive I’ve been and how much general-societal “worth” I possess after all, (for that is everything in the odd culture that is my extended family. If you’re not doing something perceivable, their regard for you is lower).
Scoring is not just for sports; it’s for dealing with extended family members, too.
If we share closer bloodlines or other special bonds, then I will spend the next hour, maybe two, exhausting them with the most intricate of details about my passions, projects, philosophies, and so on, until the Inner Critic inside me holds up her stopwatch and says, yo, do you have any clue how long you’ve been yammering on and on?
And then I get all embarrassed, because I know she’s right. My loved ones simply dared ask how my week went, and here I’ve turned my “special interests” (AKA Asperger’s/autism, psychology, and biochemical enzyme regulation) into virtual religions and I’ve been virtually proselytizing them to join.
Annnnnd, Jaw Hits Floor; Face Flushes Red.
I hope that they know to brew some tea before talking with me.
“How are you” is a very loaded question indeed. 🙂
(Image Credit: Shawn Van Daele)