So this afternoon I was browsing through Quora, one of my favorite websites for fascinating answers to interesting questions, and I came across the question "Platitudes: What are some sweetly comforting things that people say that are factually incorrect?" The top answer was "You deserve better", which I found to be an interesting and counter-intuitive response that made me curious to read more, a prime example of what makes Quora so much fun. Usually, I just stick to the top answer and move on the next question, but this time I decided to look at some of the other responses. At first it was interesting and thought-provoking, but after awhile I began to notice that many of the answers had a dispiriting, bitter, and cynical vibe. I finally exited the thread feeling a little gloomy.
I understood that many people were coming from a place of grief or pain, and in those situations particularly, platitudes can be useless at best, hurtful at worst. But still, a world in which phrases such as "It will get better" or "If you work hard, you will succeed" are banned for being factually incorrect would seem a very bleak place. I guess, part of it is that these platitudes and many others are not always (and may not even often) false. We can't speak them with certainty of course, but because they have turned out to be true often enough we rely on them. In some cases platitudes can't be proven true, but really can't be proven false either.
This brings me to the critique of "How are you?" (which appeared on the thread). I am well versed in the phrase, as I use it with every customer during my weekend/summer job at Kroger. I often hear this greeting dismissed as insincere. After all how many people really are interested in an honest answer? And how many people actually have the time and inclination to give an honest answer, often to a complete stranger?
But I think this is an overly (and often curmudgeonly) literal interpretation of the greeting "How are you?" I think most of us understand that the question is not to be taken literally, and the standard answer of "I'm fine, thanks" is also not to be taken literally. To me "How are you" is a simple, polite way to acknowledge the existence and importance of another person. While we might not really want to know how the person is, our inquiry indicates a general feeling of well-wishing. In asking, it's my way of pronouncing a sort of blessing, a hope that is all is well with you. And the expected response of "Fine" is really a way of saying "Thank you for your well-wishes towards me." When you think about it, what more supposedly honest and truly caring way, would there be to interact with strangers that is socially acceptable and not invasive? I suppose you could just decide that you will not say "How are you?" to anyone unless you really want to know, and in a job like mine and really any time contact with strangers is necessary you will simply come across as aloof and maybe even rude.
Of course with people we are close to, and with whom we have some insight into what struggles they may be facing, "How are you?" has an entirely different meaning and will generally get a different response (although, even then a person might respond, "I'm doing okay" as a way to ease into the truth of the current difficulty).
So, I for one, am not going to get too tangled up in how sincere my literal inquiry on your well-being is. Instead, I'm going to keep saying "Hi, how are you today" to acknowledge your presence, let you know that you matter, and communicate that I hope you are well. My question might not be genuine, but the sentiment behind it most definitely is.