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When people greet each other by saying “Hello,” many also add the question “How are you?” Why?

Walking down a hallway I met an acquaintance and said, “Hi!” She smiled and said, “Fine, thank you.” I hadn’t asked how she was, and after a millisecond I realized that I had once more encountered “flippant greeting disorder.” It’s not a clinical disorder, but I believe our society needs to be “healed” of it.

When people greet each other by saying “Hello,” many also add the question “How are you?” Why? Most of the time they have no serious desire to know how you are doing. It’s just their way of greeting people. If the greeted person were actually to give an honest response with a tale of woes, the greeter would soon regret they’d asked and seek the quickest escape.

As a pastor and therapist, I know people often really do want someone to sincerely ask, “How are you?” And they hope the person asking plans to take the time to listen to the answer. Everyone is hurting. The double whammy of “flippant greeting disorder” for the hurting person is that not only are they not receiving a needed inquiry about their life, but, to be polite, they feel compelled to misrepresent themselves by glibly saying “Oh, fine” when in fact they might not really be fine. A flippant question brings a flippant response.

Not only is flippant greeting disorder a people-care mistake unthinkingly practiced in our culture, it makes no sense. “How are you?” does not by any stretch of the imagination mean the same as “Hello.” When I challenge people to refrain from using this question in greeting people, they usually are surprised at how automatic it has become. “Flippant greeting disorder” desensitizes us to the value of this tool for connecting to hurting people. Saying “How are you?” has become a meaningless gesture.

So what can we do about it? I recommend four simple actions:

  1. Don’t ask the question. Commit to never greeting anyone with “How are you?” unless you really want to know and have the time to listen.
  2. Don’t answer the question. When you are greeted with a flippant “How are you?”, offer the greeter an awkward moment of silence, then say just “Hello” in return.
  3. Answer the question truthfully. If greeted with the question, tell the greeter exactly how you really are, expecting them to listen and take the time to respond. Don’t let them off the hook.
  4. Model more appropriate greetings. Greet people by saying simply “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Nice to see you,” or just “Hi!” Use real greetings for greeting.

We need to restore the question “How are you?” to its rightful use. I can’t imagine Jesus asking “How are you?” without a sincere desire to hear a heartfelt response.

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