Monday, April 28, 2008

How are you today? I don't care...

My wife struggles with the issue of the standard every day "How are you?" So common in our culture. Not that she doesn't understand the question. She doesn't understand the reason. "Why do people ask if they don't care about the answer?" That's her question. In Brazil, when people ask, they expect a detailed, honest answer. But in the U.S. when you answer with anything much beyond "Fine" or "Ok," people act bored.

She has a point. Just try one day of answering that question honestly and you'll see how fast the eyes glaze over. "How are you?" "Well, actually, my cat is sick, and my car needs a new engine. And I don't know how I'm going to pay for the vet and repairs, and to top it off, I'm coming down with something..." SNORE! People will become too busy to talk really quick and avoid you the rest of the day. Okay, not most people you really know well, but any casual acquaintances you can count on it.

In the U.S. we have a habit of asking the question as politeness, not genuine concern. And for someone from a culture where genuine concern and interest is more than politeness, it is hard to understand that. Believe it or not, in some cultures people would far rather engage in a meaningful conversation than watch tv or movies. They would even rather be with other people, getting to know them, than eating or doing about anything else. In these cultures, relationships are top priority. So imagine being in a country where independence is the highest priority, and people tend to keep small circles and hold everything in.

My wife is a friendly person who longs for community. To her, when a person asks: "How are you?" It is an investment of interest. Not a polite greeting. She took it as a genuine concern. And when she discovered people's eyes glazing over during her honest answers, she was hurt. And baffled. She doesn't get why people pretend to care, when they don't. In Brazil, people who don't want to get into a conversation or care, just greet others politely with "Oi" (hi) or "Bom dia" (good day). They make no attempt to pretend interest. It's more direct and more genuine. At least to someone from a culture where relating to others is so highly valued.

To me, it's a reminder that we've lost something. Our lack of community, our independent-mindedness, tends to numb us to genuine concern and caring, and separate us from one another. We guard our inner selves like closely held military secrets, and keep our lives and problems from the prying eyes and ears of all but our closest associates. No wonder politicians and others find it so easy to divide us. We hardly know each other. It is much easier to be suspicious and distrusting of people whom we know so little about. And even harder to care about them.

For what it's worth...

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