3.4 Verbal Salutations
Everyone is always asking me how I am. Friends, colleagues, acquaintances, customer service representatives on the phone, barista’s at Starbucks. How are you? The question contained confusion trapped inside confundity, wrapped in inquisition, cuddled in the arms of two abstract paintings resembling the brain but with wires sufficiently crossed. A matryoshka doll. A mirage in a desert. A simple question to ask, but to answer? But seriously, How are you? Simple enough. Fine, thank you. Fine is such a boring word. Fine. Say it enough and it might become more interesting. Fine can be regarded as exciting as a doctor who reads a heart monitor that recently flatlined. A straight curve. Why the obligatory Thank you? The individual asking how I am did not explicitly give me anything. Nothing of tangible value. No physical object moved from their hand to mine, no material exchange of goods and/or services, no gifts bestowed as on Christmas or my birthday, just an empty wonton assault on decency cloaked in good manners.
How are you? Another option: Good. Loaded word due to its mass generalization. Too middle-ground. Noncommittal. Reveals insecurity, mild discomfort, mediocrity, bland while at the same time the blandness allows most people to return their glassy-eyed look, unfocus their eyes, move on to more important items on the agenda, including the location of someone in the room that is higher on the social ladder. This answer works best for both parties, a way to avoid any disagreeable conversations.
Can’t complain. Try harder. Use your imagination. There are many things to complain about. Global warming, public transportation, reality television, Lady Gaga. The right to complain is what separates us from all other animal species. An elephant at the zoo doesn’t think, Damn, wish these people would stop staring. Orangutans don’t say to each other, Hey, keep your hands outta there. Polar bears don’t have the words to think, I hate the cold. The caveat here is when someone complaining inappropriately. You know who they are, those people that believe any attention given to them, even if it is just out of politeness, opens the flood gates: My husband can’t come tonight, he’s working (their emphasis) again, my kid is sick and projectile vomiting all over the floor and on me. Oh, and I’ve got shingles. In this instance, from an individual such as this, Good not only suffices, but is desired.
How are you? There are those that need to dial it back a bit: Great! An answer where you can feel the exclamation point in your bones. This person is generally compensating for something else and I refuse to participate in their illusion. Such an answer prompts a retort of equal or greater excitement. That’s amazing! I’m so happy you’re great! And the inevitable query as to why they are great because really, they are only asking you so they can tell you about their greatness. I don’t know if I’ve ever been great. As established, good is merely decent, and I would rather complain. When someone goes on to tell me how great they are doing, I tune out, I can’t concentrate because I don’t know if they are telling me or reassuring themselves in order to feel more comfortable in their skin. I hardly have enough energy to be fine, let alone good, so great is simply out of the question.
Not bad. This is someone aching for attention. A broad statement because although you may not be bad, what exactly does this mean? Many things are not bad. Winning the lottery is not bad, not getting into a car accident is not bad. The spectrum of possibilities reaches a zenith with, Pretty good. Not really good, not great, just pretty good. Too sentimental, but doesn’t it essentially mean the same thing as not bad? Some people ask, What’s going on? The answer is usually, Not much. But you woke up today, right? Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that the very opposite of Not much? We are alive and that is a pretty good thing. Where have you been? Kind of personal, my favorite answer being, Nowhere. But we’ve all been somewhere, even if we have been nowhere. Unless you’re talking about before we were even a fetus and existed as a one cell organism inside our mother’s womb. Before that single cell was created, we were technically nowhere, but specifically, you could talk about the egg and sperm involved, so therefore, we have actually never been nowhere. We always come from somewhere, even if we sometimes feel like we've been neither here nor there.
How are you feeling today? Specific, way too specific. An unusual amount of attention, an uncomfortable projection of focus on one individual. This answer demands that you’re in the moment, to not drift away, disassociate, dismember your rememberings and reconstitute your awareness into right now. Not the moment that just passed, right…now. Not the moment that comes and goes, right…now. Aren’t those the same moments? No. The moment right now. Or the moment right then. But as soon as the question leaves the person’s tongue, the moment they are actually asking about is gone.
Facebook asks me, What’s on your mind? Besides a skull, I always draw a blank, although technically the mind is inside the skull. Sometimes I post to Facebook wearing a hat, so at least there is something physically on my mind. I walk around with a constant humming in my head, an abstract collection of rants, disconnected songs that play on repeat until I remember the artist, fragments of thoughts, revelations, stories and random memories. But when I sit down to write What’s on my mind, there is a moment of pure clarity, a black hole of humdrum algorithms that in no way intersect and electrify the electrodes in my brain. My only reasoning for this is faulty wiring, like a string of unlit Christmas lights that all work except for one that is shorting out all the rest. The social media institution’s only function now seems to be for people to tell you that they cannot attend your event. Instead of ignoring invitations via phone calls (how old fashioned) or email, a person can publicly tell you that they have something more important to do. Instead of asking, What's on my mind, Facebook should ask, What personal piece of information would you like to construe and twist into something you believe perpetuates the superficial persona you have created in the hope those reading will find you cool? There should also be a tab to check or uncheck that says, Do you want to complain about privacy now, later, or after you've posted all the photographs of your wedding and the growing up of your child?
Twitter is more discerning and just expects me to tell the world how I feel, even though no one really asked. This social media outlet has the whole of humanity tied to one service. On the one hand, it helped provide vital communications for revolutions, connecting protesters on the street in a way that aided organization and even the overthrowing of governments. On the other, it’s wonderful to hear from celebrities like Kanye West: I sit everyday and ask what can I do to make a difference … I know this is not a very rapper thing to say but I haven’t bought a new car or piece of jewelry in about 2 years … I invest every dime back into creativity hiring amazing creative’s paying for flights, office … etc … I just get excited at the possibilities … the more excited I get … the more grammatical errors you’ll see … Fascinating stuff. And yet, I wonder at where all this talking about ourselves will lead, all this aggrandizing and self-importance. It’s as though an imaginary person, let’s call him Internet, desperately wants us to prove that we are here, that we matter, and we are shapers of our identity. I often don’t know what to say to Internet, but is this a reflection on him (and his followers) or on me? Perhaps I have to work at becoming a better friend, participate in the global conversation, even if that discussion is about the egg’s Benedict I had this morning and how the eggs were runny. I hate runny eggs.
Perhaps I put too much pressure on myself. The question is irrelevant and the answer equally innocuous. Just play nice and be appreciative that anyone even remotely cares enough to ask, How are you? For in the end, there is more pain in trying to explain your situation, the best scenario is to provide your answer, keep the lie going and move on with your life.