When someone asks, “How are you?” do you give them an unfiltered and honest answer or do you like to play by the rules and default to a "fine" or "good" just to avoid burdening people with your problems? What if your customary conversation starter was meant as a simple "hello," but you end up with more than you asked for?
Especially in times like these, when a pandemic is running rampant and the panic and fear of the unknown eat away at us every day, we might crave more meaningful social interactions, which could push us to assign more importance to this everyday question. Despite being thrown around as a casual greeting, in Turkey you might get a much more detailed answer, especially when it comes to matters of health.
Some health revelations can catch you flat-footed, for instance, when you run into a neighbor at the supermarket and she blurts out she has cancer. Or when you're at your child's day care, all stressed-out and sweaty, and one of the other mothers launches into a disquisition on her back problems. Be it a serious illness or minor aches and pains, people often talk about what ails them. And their interlocutors often wonder how best to respond.
"When we ask someone we know, 'How are you?' upon meeting, it's actually meant only as a pleasantry," says social educator Christoph Sczygiel, adding that no one expects a detailed medical report in response.
Interpersonal communication of this kind is especially common in the United States, notes Karsten Noack, a communication coach in Berlin. "Greeting someone in such a positive way facilitates interpersonal relations," he says. "It creates a friendly undertone."
But in many countries, including Turkey and Germany, simply replying, "Good!" to a query of, "How are you?" isn't as customary as it is in the U.S., especially if the people we are talking to are more than just the regular acquaintance. "Many people actually reply at length," Noack says, which is often awkward for those who meant the question merely as a pleasantry.
His position on the matter is clear: "If you ask, you've got to be prepared for an honest answer. So if you don't want to deal with one, you shouldn't ask in the first place."
The problem is that lots of people ask, "How are you?" automatically. What should you do if the pleasantry slips off your tongue but you don't have the time or inclination to hear out your conversation partner's list of troubles?
If the person isn't a friend or someone you hold close, Sczygiel suggests sticking to pleasantries to maintain emotional distance. Responding, "Life can be hard," for instance, expresses sympathy but also signals your desire for no further elaboration.
However, in Turkey, there's a factor not many think of: teyzes and amcas (in Turkey strangers and older people are called either "teyze," which means aunt or "amca" which means uncle as honorifics). The elderly people of our community or the older acquaintances we meet on our way to work on public transport, tend to strike up a conversation with us, and usually, it turns into a competition of who has the worst ailments.
So what are you supposed to do when that "amca" you encounter in the hallway goes on and on about his aches and pains or that "teyze" you meet at the market complains about her depressed mood? People like this are easily pigeonholed and not taken seriously after a while, Noack said, as these can stem from just being lonely and not indicate a serious illness.
But what if you suspect that behind the same, constant complaints lies real distress?
"If you'd like to help, you can ask the person how they deal with the problem," said psychology professor Peter Walschburger. "It's about having a caring, empathetic and solution-oriented conversation that allows the other person to work out possible remedies on their own without you pointing a finger."
What if a close friend or relative informs you of an illness? Then, too, it can be difficult to find the right words. Health psychologist Sabine Guenther herself was on the receiving end of failed attempts at solace when she battled cancer.
"Hackneyed phrases are out of place," Guenther said. She said well-meaning exhortations such as, "Keep your chin up!" are seldom helpful and that she found sentences beginning with, "What you have to do now is..." to be unpleasant. Drink this, drink that, do this, don't do that – these could do more harm than good, anyway.
"You should steer clear of tutelage," she advised.
Under no circumstances offer “at least” statements. This will only minimize their problem and feel dismissive. Instead, acknowledge that their struggles are valid and offer compassion.
It's also important, Guenther said, to show sympathy but not to suffer too much yourself. "During my illness, I spent a lot of time consoling others," she recalled.
And you should be careful about giving unsolicited advice. Whether it's a miracle cure you heard about on the news or asking questions without permission, "sometimes it helps to simply listen."