Hello, How Are You, Won’t You Tell Me Your Name?

A few days ago, I was in the library when I made eye contact with a face that was not foreign to my memory.

Well, over a year ago we had engaged in a short conversation pertaining to an interest that we both shared.

As I saw my path to the exit being blocked by this person whom I will call “Pat,” I prepared myself for the “stop and chat” that would inevitably occur in ten paces.

I did not know “Pat’s” name, nor did I know anything else about “Pat”; all I knew was that we had exchanged no more than a few sentences over a year ago. However, I found myself asking how “Pat” was.

Oh, “Pat” was fine.

How was I?

I was just fine.

The conversation ended following this intimate exchange of personal interests in a most appropriate manner-an end marked by both of us abruptly walking away from each other, mumbling fading “good-byes” over our shoulders.

So what, you may ask, is so special about this interaction? Nothing is special about it, and therein lies the problem.

This is often an everyday occurrence for me, sometimes even happening multiple times a day.

Most of the time I know the other person’s name and have made his/her acquaintance on more than one occasion.

However, more times than not, my interactions with such acquaintances resemble that of the one described above.

Now, you may wonder what is wrong with this.

Isn’t this just being nice and polite?

Nice, yes; polite, no. Politeness is a characteristic marked by consideration.

And consideration is thoughtful concern for others. When I asked how “Pat” was, surely I did not wish him, “Pat,” any ill, but I didn’t really care.

I expected no more of a response than I received and was as perfectly satisfied with the answer as “Pat” was with mine. Neither of us truly wanted to know how the other was doing, nor did we probably have the time to find out.

Such interactions as the one described above have been popularly called “small talk.”

When one is greeted with a singsong “How are you” by a wide-eyed, open-armed and smiling acquaintance, the “small talk script” is quickly racked for conversation pieces or what I refer to as A.I.R. (awkward interaction repellent).

When A.I.R. is employed, the emotional responses to this variety of subjects can range from the excited and high-pitched, “That is soooo cooool,” to the sad, low-pitched “Nooooooooo.” While this example is in mock reference to young women, men are also guilty of such emotional annoyances.

These interactions have also been called “shallow exchanges.” Shallowness is a lack of knowledge, intellect or emotion. While such exchanges may lack depth, they often, as in the example above, do not lack emotion.

Thus, I feel that a more appropriate term for these exchanges is insincere, rather than shallow.

In a recent article published in the Vermont Cynic, an article titled “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the author states that his own insincere exchanges do not reflect his personal shallowness or insincerity, but the insincerity “of the whole social scene at universities nationwide.” I would argue that this insincerity is not only a problem of American universities but of American society in general. “How are you” has become such an ingrained part of the American greeting that the meaning behind it has become calloused by overuse.

For example, how often do you know the answer to this common question before it is even finished being asked? Furthermore, I would dare say that all of us at one time or another have answered the question “What’s up?” with “Fine,” an honest mistake but proof of the monotonous property “How are you” has achieved.

All this became very apparent to me upon my four months spent living in Prague.

Many times, I was met with an awkward smile or a look of confusion upon my asking a Czech I had just been introduced to how he/she was.

I was told that this was simply not done.

The Czechs often see such a question between new acquaintances as an insult.

At first I thought the Czechs were a cold and impolite people, but the more I discussed the subject with my Czech friends and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

To ask someone how he/she is, is akin to asking him/her his/her personal business.

To frame such a question in a passing manner is as good as tattooing “I don’t care” on your forehead.

As time passed and I learned from my own mistakes, I began to treat my words as gold coins rather than copper pennies.

But how in all of God’s green earth, in everything that is sacred, in the name of the father, the son and Lebron James, can a society function without using such a phrase in an introductory or passing way?

The Czechs may not be a domineering world power or have a cowboy for a president, but they do make a damn good pilsner-mmmm, pilsner-oh, and they also have made their way around the problem of general societal insincerity that we, Americans, have not.

Instead of passing their fellow countrymen on the street with a quick and meaningless, “Hey, how ya doing?” the Czechs (along with other Europeans) have come up with an ingenious system of greetings and salutations.

This is very complicated, so bear with me.

During the daylight hours they say, “Dobry Den” or, in English, “Good day”; as day turns to dusk and evening, they use “Dobre Vecer” or “Good evening”; and during the night, they say “Dobre Nos” or, that’s right, “Good night.”

These can be used as greetings or farewells and have proven very effective over many years of testing.

If this system feels too refined or perhaps you feel its appropriateness requires an accompanying tip of the hat in a time when, unfortunately, hat tipping is not the style, there are other ways to get around our favorite phrase of feigned interest.

“Hello” is a good start. While many of you are fond of the “Hello, how are you” combination, perhaps exchanging “How” with “What” and adding “up to” at the end will tickle your fancy.

This is a simple question that demands a simple and straightforward answer.

Sure, you could lie about where you are going or what you are doing, but that would involve too much thinking (an activity that has fallen out of popularity since MTV stopped playing music videos).

For those of you who want to delve deeper, perhaps the past tense “What have you been up to” suits you.

Either way, for the most part, you can avoid conveying insincerity as well as receiving it.

In the adverse time we live, with political uncertainty and terror alert color uncertainty, nuclear weapons and nuclear inspections, the issues of this article may seem petty.

However, perhaps it is the perfect time that we inspect ourselves and the reasons many foreigners see the American agenda as one of selfishness and greed. By changing the way in which we interact with each other, we may take the first step towards changing the way many perceive our culture.

In these times of confusion, for many, “How are you” may not only be an insincere question but a very complicated one as well. In the future, when you see an acquaintance on your way to class and you ask him or her how he/she is, you may perhaps find yourself late to class and with the burden of other people’s problems weighing down upon your head.

And no one likes being late for class.