We've all been there: You're having a so-so day (or worse) and someone bounds up to you with a cheerful, "Hi! How are you?" And you're stuck. Do you tell a little white lie? Or do you tell them the whole sordid story?
"Usually, the answer to this old standby is short and sweet,” says image consultant Marla Tomazin. “In fact, we generally expect a reply along the lines of, ‘Very well, thank you.'" And when someone starts in with a rant as their response, things can get awkward for everyone involved.
“What most people fail to realize is that your answer to this very simple question will either draw people in or scare them away," Tomazin points out. So, how can you keep it real and honest without turning into Debbie Downer?
"Use that conversation as an opportunity to further a connection rather than as a chance to dump your own personal problems on someone else," suggests Tomazin. Keep in mind that "How are you?" is a casual question, not necessarily an invitation for a heart-to-heart. Here are a few situations where "I'm fine, thanks!" simply won't do, and some suggestions for what you can say instead.
If you're super busy: It's OK to say so without giving them a verbal copy of your schedule—and you can say how busy you are without complaining about how busy you are. “I’ve been busy, but I'd love to catch up sometime!” is a great (and appropriate!) response if you really do want to chat later, but if you don't, "I've been busy, but thanks for asking!" is fine, too. If life is hectic for personal reasons, and you feel OK about sharing some of them, weave them in to your response, Tomazin says. "This wedding planning is a full-time job, but it’s been a lot of fun!"
If you're exhausted: When you're sleep-deprived and cranky, it's tempting to meet an energetic "How are you?!?" with "Really. Freaking. Tired." But that would be rude. “Even though you may feel that you don’t even have the energy to address the question, try to rally when someone asks after you,” Tomazin says. “Others might not know you’re tired, and a curt response can send the wrong message." Instead, try "Sorry, I'm a little tired—still recovering from last night! How have you been?" or even just a big smile and "Thank goodness for caffeine!" Are you a new parent? "I was up late with the baby; thank goodness he's cute!" fits the bill.
If you just don't feel like talking: It happens, for many reasons. But you should still respond to the person who greets you. "I wouldn’t advise ignoring another person, but know that it’s perfectly fine to keep your answer short and sweet,” Tomazin assures. “Plus, it’s entirely possible that the person asking how you’re doing is reaching out just to be polite, anyway! So when you’re feeling antisocial, simply stick with something short and to the point." There are plenty of pointed-but-polite responses from which to choose: "OK. And you?" "TGIF!" "Not bad!" and, of course, the white-lie stand-by: "I'm fine, thanks!"
What do you do when someone asks "How are you?" and you're not all-the-way OK?