Monday, October 27, 2008



This is a standard greeting in the United States. People you don't even know ask you "how you're doing." For years, I thought nothing of it. It was just part of the greeting. You say "Hi" or "Hello," then "how are you doing?" I never really cared to know how the other person was doing, with some exceptions. If I knew the person well I would want to know how he was doing because I cared about him in some way. It would bother me if things were not going well, while it would hearten me if things were good. But if I met a complete stranger, it would not make any sense to ask how life was treating him. What possible context would I have to understand his answer?

Still, complete strangers ask each other "how are you doing?" on a regular basis. Go into a restaurant and a waiter will ask: "Good evening. How are you all doing this evening?" Walk into a car dealership and the salesman will say: "Hi, how are you today?" Call a customer care center in Bombay and a faceless operator will ask: "Hello, sir, how are you doing today?" And if you walk into a bar, chances are someone will address you with the line: "So how're you doing?" before the night is out. In these encounters, "how are you doing" simply extends "hello." It provides an initial conversational grounding. The speaker does not ask the question in order to obtain the information for which it calls. Unless, perhaps, the speaker is a doctor and he has to know "how you are doing" in order to treat your symptoms.

Why does this matter? I find it significant that there is so much artificial discourse in the United States. If a person asks: "how you're doing," shouldn't he really care to know your problems? After all, the question calls for an individual response concerning individual circumstances. But we all know this is not generally the case, with the exceptions mentioned above. Rather, a stranger asks: "How you're doing" as a segue into a more self-centered pitch, whether it's to encourage you to buy a product, beg some change or ask you on a date. It is formalistic. It has no substance. It is a question that does not seek information. It is a sound that signifies nothing. It merely fills the air until the real questions begin. Revealingly, your response to "how you're doing" is normally identically formalistic. You simply respond: "Fine," or "Good," even you're feeling neither fine nor good. You will only truly respond to the question when you know the person is actually concerned about you.

I never would have even noticed these things if I had not traveled abroad. I learned so much when I lived in Berlin, simply by observing how Germans went about their daily lives. When you completely immerse yourself in a foreign culture, you begin to deeply question all the traditions and customs with which you were raised. Even the simplest, most basic things--like American greetings--take on new meanings after experiencing a different approach to them. For example, in Germany, people say: "Guten Morgen" in the morning, "Guten Tag" in the afternoon, "Guten Abend" in the evening or "Gute Nacht" before they go to bed at night. But they only say: "Wie geht es? (How's it going?")" when they have some connection to the person they're greeting. I learned this early on. When I would walk into a store and greet people with: "Hallo, wie geht es?" they would give me puzzled looks. It was as if they could not understand why a perfect stranger was asking them how they were doing. Why would a stranger do that? What does it concern him?

At first I found this strange. After all, I was raised in culture where we said: "How are you?" immediately after "hello." Could it be the Germans did not do the same? It was difficult for my young mind to conceive that, but eventually it did. It was just one of the myriad subtle cultural distinctions that gave me a completely different perspective on life--and a healthy skepticism for all customs acknowledged as "universal" in the United States.

German greetings make more sense. They are more honest. After all, why do we really say "how are you" to a stranger, or even an adversary? We have absolutely no desire to know how a stranger or adversary is doing. We merely recite the words out of cultural habit. Of course, we are fully warranted in asking "how are you" when we have even a tenuous connection to the person we ask, whether it be a coworker, acquaintance or distant relative. In that case, we have a genuine interest to know how the person is doing because we care in some way. But in cursory, one-time exchanges with complete strangers, do we honestly care to know "how they're doing?" What would we say if they responded: "I'm doing awful. My father is dying and I have no money." That would take us aback, wouldn't it? Yet we would be mortified, because we were the ones who solicited the response. We asked: "How are you," and we received an answer. In that case, we fall back upon another social convention. We say: "I'm sorry to hear that," then move on to our own business. We do not even register what the person told us.

We express cultural habits through language. American greetings are an example. On the surface, it appears that all Americans care about one another. After all, they stop to ask how they are doing. They appear genuinely interested. Other cultures do not do this. But upon truly analyzing the dynamics, we see that the outward friendliness is merely an empty form. Sworn enemies may ask one another "how are you," then proceed to savage each other in word and in deed. It is just another insincere salve that thinly veils the brutally sincere competition that really dominates everyday existence in America.

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