The Social Experiment Continues – “I’m Fine”

I'm Fine

Quite a while ago I wrote about the “How are you?” phenomenon, in a post titled “I’m Fine – A Random Sunday Rant.”  And I don’t mean phenomenon as in “impressive or extraordinary, ‘  but rather that it is an observable occurrence.  I have continued my personal social experiment with some interesting observations.

I work in a retail setting, a coffee bar inside a small local market in a tourist driven town.  So I see a wide variety of people; my regulars, the locals, weekend tourists, bums, high society types and everything in between.

In my experiment I am the Control, you could say.  I have trained myself to remain highly aware and attentive to conversation.  Every once in a while I’ve slipped up, but 99% of the time I avoid the How-Are-You trap.  It used to really bother me, and sometimes still does, when people ask me that question.  What really annoys me about it is the complete lack of consciousness and mindfulness that envelopes the question.  Why ask someone how they are if you really don’t care?

Let’s be honest.  Do you really care how your cashier at the grocery store is after your long, exhausting day at work and you still have to go home and cook dinner, clean up, care for children, etc.?  Or do you really want to divulge your problems to a total stranger that asks how you are when you’ve just had a really hard day?  No.  You reply with, “good how are you.”  Just like that, too.  Devoid of meaning.  Emotionless.  Generic.

I make it a point to say “good morning” or “good afternoon” to people.  It was a weird habit to get into at first.  It felt very foreign and in a way old-timey, like I should be in a saloon, not a coffee bar.  Over time it’s become more natural and easier.  I must say, it’s been quite a curious experiment.

The majority of people are like this:

Me: Good morning!

Customer: Hi how are you.

Me: Good thanks.

(awkward pause)

Me: What can I get you?

See, I have the strategic advantage of being able to change the subject and move on quickly.  I try to keep the awkward pauses to a minimum, just long enough for them to notice but not long enough to make it weird or give them a chance to fully process what just happened.   These types of people are generally polite and acceptable to deal with.  They know they’ve asked me a question and that I’ve responded.  But something is different in this transaction and they can’t quite figure out what.  In a way I prefer these people.  They don’t press the issue and are usually otherwise pleasant.

Then there are these people:

Me: Good morning!

Customer:  Hi how are you.  I want a double almond cap two soy lattes one with no foam and a small hot chocolate.

Me: Proceeds to start making drinks.  These people are annoying and abrasive.  No eye contact ever, and I may as well be a robot back here making all their fancy drinks.  I prefer to just push them through the line quickly and be done with them.

These ones make me laugh:

Me: Good morning!

Customer: Good how are you.

(awkward pause. Insert perplexed look and blinking several times.  Follow with a smile so they don’t feel totally stupid IF they realize they were not in fact asked The Question.)  These people are actually quite amusing to me.  They have no clue how dumb they look and sound and I find that funny.  One of my coworkers is aware of my experiment and I like to laugh with her about these types.

There is another group that likes to ask twice.  Twice, really?!  You didn’t care the first time! Obviously you didn’t because you are so unconscious that you have to ask again.  And its typically spoken with more intent than the other people.  These people bug the crap outta me and its always awkward.  The awkwardness is unavoidable!  It usually goes like this:

Me: Good morning!

Customer: Hi. How are you? (with a detectable amount of meaning)

Me: Good thanks.  What can I get you?   (Proceed to make drinks, etc. Turn to the register and ring them up)

Customer: How are you today?

Me:  Good thanks.

(very awkward pause)  I’m convinced these people are of some kind of minion, making sure The Question continues circulation, not satisfied until both parties have spoken the standard lines, and they get quite thrown off if the other person doesn’t do what they’re supposed to by asking The Question in return.

And finally, the real people. The Genuines:

Me: Good morning!

Customer:  Good morning! (usually includes eye contact and a smile but they only smile if they mean it.)

Yes! Thank you for not asking!  We have mutual acknowledgement and respect, and enough consciousness to know the meaninglessness of The Question and the futility in participating.

Out of the hundreds of people I see and interact with, only one customer has picked up on my experiment.  He’s a semi-regular of course, and has decades of his own experience dealing with the public which has made him very observant and aware.  We talked about it one day.  He mostly just let me vent about the whole concept, which was actually quite nice.  He understands my dislike of The Question and the reasons behind it and respects that.  We both disclosed that we only ask others when we mean it.

When “I’m Fine” Would Be A Lie

One encounter with The Question ended rather unpleasantly.  It was away from work, at my yoga studio.  I had previously met a woman with whom we share a mutual friend.  We had exchanged pleasantries a few times prior and she never noticed my avoidance of The Question.  Then on this particular day, I was in rough shape from illness and felt pretty lousy.  She asked The Question. I had no patience and muttered “please don’t ask me that.”  Ever since then, she will not speak to me, won’t look at me, just completely avoids me.  Wait a minute.  I offended her by downright refusing to participate in this unconscious stupidity?!  I know damn well what she was expecting to hear.  She wanted me to lie.  She wanted me to tell her I’m good when i wasn’t.  Really wasn’t.  I couldn’t do it.

I could not bring myself to make an always awkward situation into something tolerable and socially acceptable by lying.  If she was genuine, wouldn’t she have followed my retort with something like, “are you okay?” or “is something wrong?” ?  After all, we have a mutual friend so there is some commonality established; we aren’t total strangers.  Instead she avoids me like the plague, which to me only reveals her lack of authenticity and mindfulness.

It is unlikely The Question will ever die.  It is ingrained in our society and those that do not participate are outside of the norm.  I’ll just continue the experiment for my own amusement and to quietly disrupt social norms.


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