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Platitudes – ‘Hi how are you’…. Who really cares?

June 28th, 2008 · 5 Comments

You are at work and the phone rings, you pick up the receiver and a business associate says. Hi, how are you?’ and you respond ‘fine thanks, and you?’ Everyone involved in this duplicitous dialogue knows that the health enquiry was disingenuous and so was your response. So why do we do this day in and day out?

Let’s turn to history.

Perhaps in the past death was so common that your friend or neighbour was alive one day, feeling unwell the next and very dead the day after that, perhaps killed by the plague or by a pork chop gone bad.

Or maybe we can blame our pastoral ancestors. Our ancient villages and small towns were home to small populations, where closer community relationships were necessary to perform the most basic tasks like drawing water from the well. We cared because we needed to.

Perhaps, though, it’s something darker, much darker. Maybe we never really cared whether Joe our neighbor was dying of the black plague, perhaps we didn’t care that Edgar the boy next door didn’t quite make it to the farm yesterday, maybe it was a sham then, a sham now and always will be a sham.

Now before you leap to any conclusions about me simply being heartless, or not caring about anyone else, I want you to think about your last conversation with a work colleague, or shop assistant. How did it begin? That’s right, you did the old “How are you?” routine and guess what, you couldn’t have cared if they were sick, dying, tired or having a bad day in fact you wouldn’t have even heard the response if they were.

But to get back on track, let’s turn to science for a more modern answer.

Maybe our brains are so slow that we are incapable of actually putting an idea into words without warming up our mouths and voice boxes?

Alternatively we may think that our interaction will go better if we can fool the other person into believing we care about their welfare – of course it’s quite likely they are thinking the same thing.

A more plausible theory might be that like dogs, when humans meet or interact an assessment must be made as to how friendly the other person is. In person this can be assessed quite quickly through smiles and handshakes or in the case of dogs a quick butt sniff. The more cues we have to the friendliness of the person, the quicker this preliminary sniff can be.

We would expect that over the phone where no visual cues are present that it might take longer to make an assessment, usually via a few hollow words of concern – a more protracted telephonic butt sniff.

I decided to do a little test.

Kelly the receptionist from the dental clinic called to confirm my dental appointment. ‘Hi Katherine, this is Kelly from Dr Rouad’s office, how are you today?’ she asked. ‘Well Kelly, funny that you ask’, came the response, ‘I had to wake up quite earlier than usual for a morning meeting so I got dressed in the dark, when I got to work I realized that I was wearing one brown boot and one black boot. This sets the scene for the day, so things got much worse from here and I couldn’t meet an important deadline and now I feel like crap. It’s just been one of those days. Ah I feel so much better now that I have gotten that off my chest Kelly!’ The silence on the other end indicated that Kelly thought I required a psychiatric appointment instead of a dental check.

My point here is that answering honestly to this question can also run the risk of making people uncomfortable. Does the person asking the question really care that you are feeling like crap? Not a chance.

No one on that phone (unless they are your mother) actually cares if you have the flu, are wearing a black boot and a brown boot or dying of botulism. By some mystery of evolution, history or cultural legacy we have become masters of the lie.

It’s either lie, and say you care when you really don’t, or tell the truth and offend. Your choice.

Tags: musings

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 joebob // Oct 25, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    pretty good info. the picture kinda creeps me out though

  • 2 Karyne // Feb 4, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    So true! I still get caught off guard when meeting Brits who greet by saying: ‘Hi mate, ‘you all right?’. What to answer to that? At first I thought it meant I looked ill, then realized it was just a variation on the platonic greetings theme.

  • 3 kimbakat3 // Feb 5, 2010 at 8:29 am

    How funny Karyne! I can understand the confusion, its funny that even though we speak English, there are variations in meanings.

  • 4 Ylva // Oct 7, 2010 at 9:04 am

    Hi! I am wondering where you found the picture of “the black death”. Like to use it and need high res and rights… Can you help me? /Ylva

  • 5 kimbakat3 // Oct 7, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Hi Ylva, it’s a great pic! I just did a search on google image search on the ‘the black death’ and it came up. The original picture should still be there. From memory there were heaps of similar ones. Good luck.

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