Ithaca Blog

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What We Mean When We Say "How Are You"

I just got back from vacation in Maine, which is wonderful but involves a long car ride. I am lucky, though, in that I get to make the trip with my friend Gil, who can really drive, talk, and listen.

We go eleven hours and do not turn on the radio or music once. There is no reading. There is just talk.

Alike and akin as we are, though, we find we differ strongly on a simple conversational topic: the greeting.

It came up because I was telling Gil about some aspect of life I should be pursuing, but am not, and when he asked why, I said, "Ahh... I hate to say this, even, but I'm pretty busy."

"Why do you hate to say that?," he asked. "There's nothing wrong with being busy."

"No," I said. "But there's something wrong with mentioning it."

I detect a puzzled look.

"You know," I said. "Those people who you ask how they are, and they say 'I'm really busy.' I hate that."

"I say that," Gil says.

"Well, knock it off," I say.

"I mean, what I think I usually say is 'I'm tired.' "

"Well, knock that off, too."

"Knock what off? Telling you how I am when you ask me?"

"I'm not asking you because I want to know. I'm asking you to mark an interval."

"Well, I guess that doesn't occur to me," Gil says.

"I guess not," I say.

"You know," I say, "you don't have to tell me you're busy and tired. I assume you're busy and tired, if you're alive. Do you have to trumpet it? Come on. Are you busier than Hillary Clinton? Are you more tired than Mother Teresa?"

(Mother Teresa long ago went to her eternal rest, of course, but this is who came to mind.)

"Do you have fewer hours in a day than other people? There are 24 for us all. So you can't be any busier than me, unless you're not managing your time well.

"Why don't you say that to people when they ask how you are? 'I'm not managing my time well.' Admit it! How's that for a conversation stopper?  Plus, what should be your abject shame?"

We rode on a while. We were each trying not to be first to laugh. I don't recall who won.

I also don't know how we will greet one another when we meet next time. But I trust it will be as genteel as this. It is good to have true friends.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

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