How Are You? Don’t Really Care.

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Have you ever kicked off a conversation by saying, “Hello! How are you?”

Sure, you have. We all have.

But this simple phrase is less than optimal. In fact, it’s often used in a way that is detrimental to both the messenger and the message.

Surprised? Think about these types of questions:

“How are you?”

“How are you doing?”

“What’s happening with you today?”

All of these are conversational conventions which most of us are guilty of using at least some of the time. What most may not realize is that these and similar phrases subtly communicate that the person using them does not, in fact, care about the answer.

Think about it.

No one asks, “How are you?” expecting to hear anything but “Fine, thanks!” with perhaps an added, “And how are you?” In our contemporary culture-- whether in a personal or business environment-- anything less than a positive statement isn’t typically well received. In fact, communication that focuses on problems may even be stigmatized.

When someone asks, “How are you?” it’s left unsaid that this question isn’t an expression of genuine interest. Seldom if ever will anyone answer and voice concerns about a business problem—much less about their own loneliness, family drama, or feeling overwhelmed. Certainly no topics such as anxiety or depression will be broached.

Something else to consider is how these types of questions reflect upon the person asking them. There’s a substantial body of research that indicates these common bits of introductory small talk are an impediment to encouraging the other person to like you.

The “How are you?” phrase reinforces the perception that the questioner isn’t a great listener. The person receiving the question—a question to which an honest answer isn’t expected—begins to feel the questioner isn’t motivated by genuine concern and lacks empathy.

Especially during this time of pandemic and economic recession, the answer for many to the “How are you?” question might be that things could, in fact, be better. Cognitive dissonance is created by the thinly veiled dishonesty.

Furthermore, these types of questions are self-centered in that they are used primarily as an opening gambit to allow the conversation to be quickly steered in the direction desired by the questioner. As Ashley Fetters said in an issue of The Atlantic:

"To ask 'How are you?' is either to make the conversation very gloomy, very fast or to force someone to lie straight to your face and say they're fine. We need better questions to ask."

You might argue that all this is really nothing more than a social convention where both parties play their part in opening the conversation with a meaningless exchange of pleasantries. But even if you doubt the psychology, consider that if you’re going to invest the words, you might substitute something more meaningful. You could be the person who creates a higher level of intuitive reaction, with higher levels of esteem and trust from the very beginning of the conversation.

Researchers at Harvard Business School evaluated hundreds of conversations to determine what kinds of questions actually engaged the recipient and increased their reported regard for the questioner. One interesting conclusion: simply asking more questions of the other person caused the questioner to become “better liked” by the conversation partners. Not only that, but the conversation partner who asked more questions was perceived as being “higher in responsiveness,” which indicated the person was a better listener, with higher “understanding, validation, and care.”

It doesn’t take a Harvard University research staff to help improve communication by avoiding meaningless questions. Dale Carnegie, in How to Win Friends and Influence People (over 30 million copies sold, ranked #19 on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 “Most Influential” books), summarizes the key to becoming liked:

Become genuinely interested in other people.

"You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you."

Genuine interest can be demonstrated by inquiries with more specificity:

“Good morning, John! How is Kyle doing with his virtual classes?”

Or, “Did the problem you were having with the network get resolved?”

Or, “Last time we talked, you were planning a vacation to the islands. Is that still in the works?”

Positive messages that are focused on the other person instead of self-centric queries demonstrate that the questioner is indeed genuinely interested. Good questions demonstrate care for the other person and are not simply place-holders intended to smooth the path towards talking about whatever is on the questioner’s actual agenda.

Good conversation is a two-way street. If you use "How are you?" as a conversational opener, you’ve begun the conversation with a one-sided inquiry, and can probably do better. Increase and demonstrate your genuine interest, and the people with whom you are speaking will appreciate it.

The words you choose say a lot. Choose them carefully and think about how the other person will perceive you. Your word choice says a lot—mostly about, well, you.

At Redline Media Group, we understand that words matter. Words have meaning—sometimes more meaning than the person using the words understands. Our patented, proprietary ScivertisingTM process utilizes colors, shapes, treatment styles, visuals, and messaging components driven by analytical data, scientific principles, and applied psychology. The end result is a message delivered to the target audience that resonates and creates a deeper emotional and subconscious connect—ultimately creating higher transactional conversion.