How am I? Why do you want to know?

It could be that I am too literal. But as long as I have a website for ranting in, let me rant.

As I say, it could be that I am too literal. A touch of Asperger’s maybe? Who knows? But in my distorted mind, a question demands an answer, and if possible a truthful answer that responds to the question. And this demand should not be gratuitous or impertinent.

So I have a hard time when people ask me: How are you? I know they don’t really want to know how I am (even the slightly more realistic How are you? is just as likely not to be a real question). And I know I am expected to answer with the equally empty formality: Fine, thanks, how are you? It is assumed I do not care to have my question actually answered, either.

There’s that pesky literalism, or whatever it is, but these formalities are always a struggle for me. I know the question is like a handshake, a ritual for showing no weapon in the hand. But still it is very hard for me not to answer truthfully. If I had an actual arrow in my back I would answer: Not so good, as you can see I have this arrow in my back. But the arrows in my back are poetic, not literal, and the inquirer doesn’t want to hear about them because s/he is not really an inquirer but is only mouthing an empty formula. And anyway I don’t usually want to get into all that about the arrows.

Usually I can manage the required response: Fine, thanks, how are you? But it is difficult every time, and every time I have to stifle one of two rude responses. One is an actual answer: Not that great today, thanks for asking, I have some gout in my foot and the translator on my latest project just flaked out on me, plus I don’t even want to be at this pointless reception and can’t wait to get out of here, do you know where the bar is? That’s rude because no one wants to hear it; this name-tagged person I’ve just met does not care how I am, and I have flubbed my line. The second rude response is to challenge the questioner by asking, even with a smile: Why do you want to know? I allow myself to do that when the question is really out of line (from an unknown person in an elevator) or intrusive (beyond how are you: where do you live, what do you do for work, are you married? from, for example, a taxi driver). But usually not. If I cannot manage Fine, thanks, how are you?, I will sometimes say: Too early to tell.

I know this hiccup is a foolish one. I should just get with the program and return a meaningless pleasantry with its scripted response. But I have a lot of trouble with meaningless expressions, and with scripted responses, and even with pleasantries I find unpleasant. Could this be why people have stopped asking me to parties, or is it that I have stopped going to them anyway?

I have the same kind of problem even with people who do care how I am. I call a close friend on the phone. How are you?, she asks. Not so good, I answer, I have an arrow in my back. Oh, she says, I am so sorry! This drives me to my familiar perch up the wall.  Her being sorry may be heartfelt but is completely useless. It doesn’t do a thing for my back. Indeed, it is not even about me, it is about her, and says that although I am in pain from an arrow, she is a compassionate person, right at that moment indeed in a paroxysm of compassion, doesn’t that help? It doesn’t, actually. If she were to say: I’ll be right over with a pair of pliers and some codeine, that would help. But stating her sorrow at my pain implies that I must now express my sorrow at her sorrow, and so on without end. I don’t want to start that, even though I know it isn’t really in the script; anyway the main problem is the beside-the-point uselessness of her response. Most people don’t find I’m-so-sorry exchanges annoying, and may even find them comforting, but only in some way I cannot understand.

The only real solution to this would be to take the ritual greeting out of the interrogative and put it into the vocative: Hail, citizen! (or, if you want to get all technical: Hail, citizen or alien!). I would have no problem with that at all, or even with Hi! Alternatively, I could stop being such a pill and speak my lines. Which do you suppose will happen first? Don’t answer that, it isn’t a real question! Do you know where the bar is?