Over time, these three words have become a standard greeting rather than a genuine question. When greeted this way, chances are, you’ve offered an answer along the lines of “good,” “not bad,” or “I’ve been better.” I don’t blame you—nobody’s asking in hopes of receiving a real answer. It’s the equivalence of a handshake or smiling at a stranger as you pass by—a social obligation.
My Zoom calls at work usually start with a short “how are you today?” before we get into the topic at hand. Well, what would happen if I started to answer the question? I mean really answer it.
Coworker: Hi, how are you?
Me: Hey, thank you for asking. I’ve actually been really down lately. I’ve been struggling to keep up with all my responsibilities. Work, school, volunteering, friends, family, health, finances—it’s a lot. I’m taking it day by day, but sometimes it feels like this vicious cycle will never end. I don’t know what to do anymore.
Coworker: Oh, that’s too bad. I hope you feel better soon. So, um, about that proposal I sent you last week…
Seems awkward, doesn’t it? It’s definitely not a conversation I would like to be a part of. This is why we barely answer, “how are you?” with a real answer. The real question is, why are we still using “how are you?” as a greeting? It’s thoughtful and kind in theory, but in practice, it’s quite a loaded question—one that we’re not equipped to deal with if we get a truthful answer.
As mental health has entered our everyday vernacular and has become more normalized, why are we not adapting our everyday interactions to reflect that? The words “anxiety” and “depression” have become widely understood and frequently used, but we still don’t have the tools to interact with them in a productive way. For the most part, society is accepting mental illness as a concept, but what about when people actually need support?
I once asked a friend how their mental health was doing. They paused for a second, looking at me like I had two heads. “Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” they responded. I wish I could say I was shocked.
It’s a bit of a fallacy. We have awareness days for mental health, we have policies put in place to help us, we are encouraged to open up about our struggles, but when we actually do speak up, we are often met with uncomfortability. This uncomfortable reception is to be expected—I understand that mental illness is a heavy topic—but I can’t seem to get behind the slacktivism. We are asking people to talk, but we are not giving people the tools to listen—that is half the battle when it comes to surviving mental illness. It’s not a battle you can fight alone.
So, how do we talk about mental health? I mean really talk about it.
I say we start small and progressively challenge ourselves to go outside of our comfort zones. Follow accounts on social media that normalize conversations around mental health and offer prompts on the topic. Find a support group or a forum on the internet of like-minded people that struggle with mental illness—even if you are not struggling yourself, you will gain invaluable empathy for the stories you are exposed to. Reach out to a friend or family member you can confide in. If you have the means, book an appointment with a psychologist or a counselor. If you don’t have the means or don’t feel comfortable seeing a professional just yet, book an appointment at Vent Over Tea to vent.
And if you’re not dealing with mental illness and hold the space to help others in need, maybe next time you ask someone “how are you?” add the word “really” to the end of the question, and then simply listen. You might be surprised with how far that extra word can take you.