By Michele Herenstein
This may frustrate and confound my friends, family, and acquaintances, but lately almost every time someone writes me an e‑mail or text that starts off with “How are you?” I feel myself getting frustrated and irritated. I’ve been going through a rough patch, and when I receive a text asking how I am, I am stumped. And I don’t believe I am the only one with this dilemma.
Whether one is having a bad day, going through a bad time, or physically or emotionally sick and doesn’t want certain people to know, answering the question of how one is doing becomes difficult. There’s always the perfectly honest truth, or there’s making up a story that is not the truth. But both have their problems.
Imagine one has been told, G‑d forbid, that they have cancer. And they don’t want to tell anyone any details. But people, being generally curious and helpful, want to know, “How are you doing?” Actually, you are having a bad day and want to lash out and say so. But that is not done! So you must fudge your response and either lie completely and say, “I’m OK,” or respond with a vague answer such as “So-so, I’ll be all right.” It might be that you feel being honest will burden the person asking. Or it could be that you are a private person, or even that you don’t see how it would be helpful to go into all the details of how you are really feeling. Some people might ask about how you’re feeling out of sheer concern, while others out of a sense of burden. And how are you to know who is asking for which reason?
There are many other ways to express concern about someone without asking questions. “I hope you are feeling well.” “I hope you had a nice holiday.” “I hope you that if you need something, you won’t hesitate to contact me.” “I’m thinking of you.” “You were on my mind today.”
These are just some ways to express thoughtfulness, care, and love about another person, without asking questions they may not want to answer. If the person needs more help, you can add more detail in your e‑mail, such as your phone number, etc. But there’s no need to put pressure on someone by asking any questions. There are enough statements that express concern and care and your willingness to be there for them, to make the questions unnecessary.
If someone must go to chemo, and you don’t know whether that person has a way to get to the hospital, instead of asking if they need a ride, and possibly putting this person in an uncomfortable position of having to say no for whatever reason, all you need to say is, “I’m available to drive you to wherever you might need to go, including chemotherapy. Please feel free and comfortable to take me up on this offer.” See how this changes the dynamics? You’re putting yourself out there, and not making the other person get back to you if they don’t feel able to or are uncomfortable about it.
Cancer is just one example. There are dozens of others. If someone is experiencing horrendous anxiety or some other emotional problem, and needs support, asking how they are is counterproductive. Of course they aren’t all right. Perhaps writing something such as “I hope things aren’t too tough today, but I’m here if you need me” would be much more helpful. I know that when I’ve had a crazed day, having someone ask how my day went is not helpful. Having a friend understand that it was a horrible day was much more useful.
I’m sure there are people who want to be asked, “How are you?” so they can go on and on about every little detail of what is going on in their lives, whether they are well or not. And that is fine if it works on both sides—for the person telling and the person listening.
However, for the person who might be sick, whether physically or emotionally, to be asked constantly, day after day, in texts or e‑mails, “How are you?” can be quite upsetting.
I’m fine. I’m good. I’m sad. I’m in pain. I’m lonely. I hurt. I ache. My heart aches. . . . It gets embarrassing after a while to sound like a complainer.
So I’d suggest when writing to someone who isn’t well to try to just “be there” for them, and make it clear that you can and are happy to do more, if that is the case. Acknowledging someone’s pain is huge. Admitting you can’t know what it feels like, but are there for them if wanted or needed, is such a huge mitzvah and can help with someone’s pain— just by the fact that you are there for them if need be. Even words on a page can sometimes take away a bit of a person’s loneliness.
So for a New Year’s resolution, let’s try less “How are you?” and more “I’m thinking of you!” Because sick or well, aren’t we, friends and family, thinking of each other? I know I’m thinking of you, my readers!
Shanah tovah to you all. And I hope you all are OK.
Michele Herenstein is a freelance journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.