There are only two correct answers to this question

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I live in an area where “how are you?” is the standard greeting. It’s what people say when they meet you on the street. It’s what they say in the checkout line at the supermarket. How are you? How are you? It rings in my ears like a song from the radio I ‘ve heard one too many times.

There are only two correct answers to this question –fine  and good. Sometimes people will tell you they are good, meaning well put together people with positive intentions. They will say this, even though it’s not grammatically correct. No one offers an, “excuse me miss, you should’ve given me a fine or well for that one.”

No, they’ll smile and nod, relieved that they can check you off the list, like the milk and eggs they carry on that wadded up grocery list.

Most people say they are fine. We believe this means that everything is ok. In fact, we want everything to be ok because otherwise, we’d have to have a real interaction.

Most people aren’t ready to delve into the other meaning of fine – f- -ked up, insecure, neurotic, and empty.

The clerk in the grocery store certainly doesn’t want to know if your mother passed away, or if you’re not sure whether the lights will be on when you get home, or if you’re worried about your crack addicted uncle who went missing after one too many benders.

It’s probably a good thing that the clerk doesn’t want to hear about all of the woes of each and every customer.  We’d never escape with that gallon of milk we just had to have with the cookies we planned to make. If the clerk had to care then we would have to care, which would mean we’d have to linger on the face of the broken-hearted clerk who hears every sob story out there while making seven twenty-five an hour.

We’d see how her eyes are heavy with too many restless nights, trying to sleep in the two bedroom apartment she shares with her best friend and that kid from the club who always says “it’s complicated,” but who never elaborates. He just falls asleep on the couch night after night, moaning in the dark while cars zoom by on the street below.

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If we saw all of that, then we would have to also see the homeless men and women on the street who stare ahead with blank eyes and rough, worn hands holding cardboard signs that tell a carefully crafted story that’s just left of fine, but not so far left as to make them unapproachable. They live on the fringes of what is visible. The stories they tell are usually tales of desperation peppered with desires for help and  either an “I can change,” or a “can do” attitude stamped across clothes that are meant to match the story. The jeans are clean enough, but not too tight or too baggy. The shirt is worn, but not a complete tatters.

None of the signs tell the real story. They never read, “I feel so worthless right now that this is the best I can do,” “This is the face of absolute desperation,”  or “This may look bad, but it’s safer than believing that things could be different and finding out it’s not true.”

Have you ever asked a homeless person how they are doing? I don’t mean asking in an awkward situation where they are looking for money and the only justifiable answer is the one that will elicit the most pity. I mean asking at a time when the person has enough and you are interested in hearing the real story. They may tell you all of the ways they are  just f.i.n.e. You may hear about how this situation is the result of generations of unworthiness, but sometimes you may also here that while life is tough, today is a good day. Perspective is everything. Sometimes a bit of loose change in a pocket, the promise of a warm bed, and full belly are enough. No matter what you here, the story will make the person more human, and as a result, you will become more human too.

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Being human would be so much better than flippantly asking “how are you doing?” with the same interest we would show regarding the color of your socks. Maybe that’s what I should start asking –“what color are your socks today?” I’ll ask it when I want to make small talk but don’t have time to be present enough to hear the real answer regarding how someone is doing.  It would take the pressure off having to be something you may or may not be for every person that you meet. You could be a white sock person, a brown sock person, or a person with no socks at all.

It would be simple, pure and so much better than feeling worried, scared, or sick and trying to put on a brave face that says everything is hunky dory, when all you want to say is

the world came crashing in today and I don’t have my bearings. I am all alone and not sure how I can make connections. I feel that at any minute I might fail completely and have to live with the disappointing eyes of my parents and friends weighing down my every step. 

It would be a relief to not ask the question “how are you doing?” unless you really wanted to know the answer and to not have to answer it unless the person asking was trustworthy and a good listener. We could stop saying we’re f.i.n.e and just say how we really feel. Occasionally we could even give ourselves permission to ask a stranger or brave an interaction with someone who feels marginalized and invisible and find out their story.

In the mean time, “what color are your socks today” is a nice alternative. It gives the responder the opportunity to take you on a journey of color, weave, and fabric or to simply say, white, black, or variegated purple with neon green cows and walk away without worrying about the story they need to tell themselves to keep “good” and “fine” from being a complete act of dissonance that crashes against their day.

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