During one of my deployments, it dawned on me one day that someone had just answered a question I did not ask. While approaching this person I said “How are you doing?” and received the response “Not much.” I had asked him HOW HE WAS DOING and he answered the “What’s up?” question. He assumed I asked him one thing, and so that is what he answered. Interesting, I thought.
I was anxious to see if this would happen again, or if this was just a one-time mistake. I started paying closer attention to what people responded with. I would ask one of two questions as I approached someone – “What’s up?” or “How are you doing?” – and then listen closely for the response as they walked by. Sure enough, I noticed that sometimes people would answer the opposite question that I had asked. Not every time, not even one out of four or five, but enough that I decided I was on to something. People were answering questions they assumed you had asked.
I decided to take it a bit further. I stopped asking actual questions, or even speaking real words. I would mumble gibberish – and I would still get the answer to one of the two questions. Fascinating.
We ask these two questions with no expectation of a real answer. Think back to a phone call or when someone approached you and asked one of these two questions – how did you respond? Did the other person even really stop long enough for you to answer? Did you answer with a standard “Fine” or “Good” or “Not much”?
We use these phrases because they have become the socially accepted greeting and response, and we use them without actually expecting (or giving) a legitimate response. What’s more, we generally don’t even really care about the answers to these questions because we are busy, and are really only asking because it is a “polite” thing to say when greeting someone. In other words, we are doing it out of obligation. It is a false projection of concern or curiosity about our day. Few people want to take the time to answer and even fewer want to take the time to listen.
What then, is the option? Is it better to drop the pretense of caring about how someone’s day is or what they are up to? What is more rude – the fake question/response exchange or to avoid it altogether and go straight into conversation?