In Conversations, Can We Do Better Than Asking "How Are You?!"

 conversation tips

“How are you?”  Is this the best way to start a conversation? Probably not, yet it’s what most of us do. However, just because it’s a habit to ask how are you,  that doesn’t mean that’s the way it always has to be. We communicate with each other in a variety of different methods yet, “How are you?” is our go-to opening phrase.

Did you know that one of the rules of improv is that you can’t start a scene with “How are you?”  It’s true, because rather than stimulating the other actors, "how are you" tends to shut things down. The improvisers struggle to find a jumping off point for the scene, and the audience starts to wonder why they paid their $12.00 to watch a conversation that they, themselves, have at least once a day.  

With so many ways to communicate, maybe now is the time to mix things up and get creative.

You might say, “Well, Christine, what’s the big deal? Why are you so anti-how are you? It’s a meaningless phrase that doesn’t do anybody any harm.” Well, concerned stranger, you’re right. How are you is harmless— it’s something you say to your grandparents when you’re four-years-old and your mom forces you to write them a thank-you note, but now that we’re adults shouldn’t we be a little bit more adventurous with our words?

Also, if “How are you” is so great, why isn’t there an emoji for it?

I hate to be harsh, but for me, it’s so boring that it morphs into annoying-territory. You might be completely fine with someone asking you "how you are" day in and day out,  but you have to admit there have to be better ways to spark a conversation.

No, "how’s it going", nor "how r u",  aren't any better.

I consider “how are you” to be the junk food of conversational phrases: it has no nutritional value, it’s unimaginative, and an hour later makes you hungry for something more substantial. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes you absolutely have to have fast food when you’re in a pinch or you’ve got a craving for fries, but you probably shouldn’t eat it for dinner every night. This is exactly how I feel about how are you.

One of my problems with these three words is that although “How are you?” may sound like interest or concern, most of the time it’s just an easy way in and out of a conversation. You did your part, you asked how they were, and now you’re free to go. “How are you” is actually a question that encourages you to lie. Most of the time we don’t say how we’re really feeling; we just give the automatic responses of “I’m good” or I’m fine.”

Look, this could just be me, because like a bad boyfriend, how are you has burned me in the past. I had (past tense) a friend Geoff who whenever he called me would go on and on about what was happening in his life, without ever asking about mine. After he’d talked steadily for 90 minutes or so, he’d ask, “How are you?” to which I’d respond, “I’m good.” Then he’d say something like “that’s great” and end the call. He knew that if he didn’t ask about me, he’d not only be breaking the social contract, he’d look like a self-centered jerk, so he showed a minimal amount of interest.  I don’t mind listening to his problems, but let’s not pretend we had a well-balanced conversation. I didn’t feel like a participant; I felt like an uncompensated therapist.

Okay, so I don’t like it, but “How are you” isn’t hurting anyone. The truth is, it can cause anxiety for those who are struggling with mental illness as it puts an incredible amount of pressure on them to answer quickly and positively.

I suggest that we get rid of “How are you” or at least, maybe not use it as much. Since I don’t want to strand you in the land of what should I say, here are some tips for starting more interesting conversations, especially the ones you have in person.

Use the information that you’ve gathered from previous conversations. If you’re writing someone you know like a close friend or relative, get to the meat of the conversation. Ask about their family, their pets, or show them how you can help with an issue they’ve been having.

Make a statement; there’s no law that says you have to start a conversation off with a question. If you’re meeting someone for the first time in person, say something positive (without being fake) about them. If it’s an email or letter, start off with an interesting fact about you or your reason for emailing or writing. What you write doesn’t have to be perfect; it’s okay to show your vulnerability.

Create connections. If you’re emailing a colleague, don’t ask them how they are; ask them about how their latest project is going, or what ideas are giving them energy. Real connections last longer than surface ones.

Don’t make it about you, make it about them. A good conversation, even if it’s electronic is about being interested in the other person. Being genuinely interested in someone makes them feel good and gives them a more positive impression of you.

Ask for stories, not one-word answers. Asking someone how they are doesn’t exactly spark conversation, instead ask them things like what was their favorite part of the weekend, or what’s the best thing they’ve learned recently. I know that may feel strange but at least you’ll stand out from all the form-emails.

Clarify personal information. I have a very easy last name to misspell and mispronounce, but when someone makes an attempt to say Schoenwald correctly or asks me the meaning (beautiful forest,) then I feel more open to what they have to say.

Don’t have a plan. If you figure out all your questions beforehand you’ll be too busy thinking about your next question to hear their answers.

If these conversation-starters don’t work for you, think of other creative ways to begin an email, a message, a text, or a face-to-face real-time conversation. You’ll always have “How are you” to fall back on. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

What do you do in conversation to capture someone’s attention?