By Nancy Marshall, The PR Maven®

Mean It When You Ask Someone ‘How Are You?’

I recently dislocated my shoulder while skiing. If you’ve had this happen to you before, you know that it’s about as painful as any injury can be. Not only is the injury itself painful, but it also brought my own ski season to a halt, which isn’t that long for starters. As a Mainer, skiing has always been one of my favorite activities, so any obstacle barring me from the slopes is a major bummer. Plus, you can’t ride the Peloton or attend Pure Barre classes with a dislocated shoulder. But enough about me. The injury recently opened my eyes to a social faux pas that needs to stop. It has to do with the throwaway “how are you?” line.

When I see people in passing now, their first instinct is to ask, “How are you?” (In truth, it could be better.) But most people don’t actually mean it. They only ask to check a box, and you can tell easily. More often than not, people don’t even listen to the response and respond accordingly. Their stare goes blank. Their attention immediately wanders as soon as I begin to answer the question. This needs to stop. If you don’t actually care or have the time to listen, don’t even ask the question in the first place. Checking the box is more disrespectful than not asking at all, at least in my view.

The “how are you?” doesn’t have to be a throwaway line. On the contrary, it can be used effectively to convey care and compassion. It may even demonstrate the basic level of respect that turns strangers into acquaintances, and acquaintances into friends. If someone looks me in the eye and genuinely asks, “How are you?” listening to the tale of woe, it is always appreciated. It is greatly appreciated, which is why I do the same to others. The simple act of listening instantly makes me more interested in the other person since social interaction is a two-way street. It’s a matter of memorability. I remember that they listened and expressed concern. They don’t have to fix my shoulder; they just have to care. Compassion matters.

In today’s world, with the Covid-19 pandemic lingering, everyone has something going on in their lives. Life isn’t easy during normal times, let alone abnormal ones. With that in mind, try not to ask stock questions. Don’t leave your social interactions cold and impersonal. Look people in the eye. Listen, then respond. Care.

Ironically, how you interact socially becomes a part of your personal brand — how you’re defined as a person by others. Do you want to be known as the person who cares about people? Or the one who asks them stock questions and checks boxes?

Being compassionate stands out. You will stick out to others, whether it’s a family member or an employee. According to research, leaders who are empathetic fare far better when it comes to employee job satisfaction.

It’s a basic yet profound concept all at once. There’s a reason why U.S. presidents visit the sites of national tragedies. There’s a reason why presidents hug babies (at least, before the pandemic). They’re not just showing face; they’re conveying care and compassion to the general public with the hope that they’ll be remembered as warm and personable. It’s the right thing to do, optics aside.

But you don’t have to be a president to keep people in heart and mind. You don’t have to solve problems or save lives; just be there. Actually be there. Be there in your daily interactions, no matter how mundane they may seem. You will make a positive impact on the world around you, and it won’t be forgotten by the people who matter most — from clients to parents and spouses.

The magic happens in person. When we interact with others, actual chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin are released, bringing a sense of happiness and calmness. They’re “feel good” chemicals. We can never underestimate the power of social interaction — the connections that keep us all going.

The magic starts with a “how are you?” But remember: Only ask it if you mean it.


This article originally appeared on the Forbes Agency Council CommunityVoice in February 2022.