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Hard to cope with common greeting

‘What are you up to today?” she asked while punching in the code for a bag of gala apples.

I paused, searching for an appropriate canned response.

She looked up and waited.

I looked down. “Not much.” I shrugged and swiped my credit card.

She continued scanning my groceries.

Actually, it wasn’t much but it felt like much. Doctor appointment, pharmacist, bank, car pool and a vain attempt at regular life. Working. Making dinner. Everything was much, including answering inane questions from people who rarely care about the answer.

“How’s it going?” “What’s up?” and the most common question in America, “How are you?”

By a rough estimate, I must have fielded this inquiry at least 50 times in the last month. Everyone from bank tellers, receptionists, hair stylists, cashiers, and insurance agents to clients, friends and family asked how I was doing with varying degrees of interest or disinterest.

This simple question I’ve heard my whole life still has the power to stump me.

I know it’s just a cultural greeting, a synonym for “hello,” but I’m a heart-on-my-sleeve, bare-everything kind of gal who values honesty above other virtues.

This makes it an emotional land mine if I’m feeling anything besides a mediocre, lukewarm, socially acceptable “fine.”

I feel like a liar.

But it’s a social faux pas to tell the truth. When the cashier asks what you’re doing today, she doesn’t want to hear that you’re visiting someone in the hospital or meeting the school principal.

Likewise, an honest answer is awkward when life is going great. People don’t care that your kid earned an ironic 120 percent on his math test, or that you just received a raise and lowered your cholesterol.

Even when you’re with friends or family, the setting rarely supports a sincere reply.

That makes me especially appreciate the friend who only asks how I am when we have time and space. She asks with eye contact and no expectations, saying “It’s OK if you don’t want to answer, but I’m thinking about you. How are you doing?”

Frankly, I’d love it if our society and every worker who interacts with customers could keep the “How are you?” question for this kind of heartfelt inquiry and stick to statement greetings like “Hi” and “Good afternoon.”

Until then, I need to find a few new pat answers to keep from spilling my ups and downs in the grocery store. No one wants an emotional cleanup in the checkout line.

In response to the question, “What’s up?” my brother often says, “the ceiling” or “the sky,” depending on where he is. Then he enjoys the eye rolls and groans with a grin.

When asked how he’s doing, a colleague of mine typically answers, “I can’t complain” or “Could be worse.” He doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to complain about, but that he isn’t going to complain.

A friend who has health struggles said she sometimes sidesteps the “How are you?” greeting by saying “Hello” back. Usually this works well.

Other fine responses include “better,” “grateful” and any reference to the weather.

This is my favorite because it’s always honest. After all, whether it’s physical or emotional I’m usually hot or cold, with rarely a mediocre moment in between.

Contact correspondent Jill Barville by email at