My sister was dying. She was in hospice care. I’d just finished visiting her. She had only a couple days left. My cheeks were red with tears as I walked through the lobby.*
Someone, I don’t even remember who, waved and walked over, slapped me on the back and asked, “Hey, how you doing?”
My first reaction, of course, was to say, How the fuck you think I’m doing?
Of course, I didn’t. It happens all the time. I’ve been guilty myself. It just … escapes. How you doing? Then … why in hell did I just ask that stupid question?
“How you doing?” is, for all practical purposes, no different than “hello,” “goodbye,” “merry Christmas,” “be careful (or safe),” or, at the Jiffy Lube, “your car needs a new air cleaner.”
All of them mean nothing. They are just what people say because they see someone and can’t pass up the opportunity to speak even though there’s no particular reason for it. Not that I would ever do anything easy, but it’s best just to say “fine.”
One of the reasons we use those hackneyed greetings is that the alternative is just as bad. If every time a person greets someone, he or she says the same, tailored-to-that-someone remark, then it gets just as tedious. A broadcaster in Charlotte saw me at a pro basketball game. I was there because it was required by my job. It was in the 1990s. Now, every time he sees me, he walks over and starts talking about basketball … because he saw me at a game 20 years ago and it’s still what he thinks of when he sees me. In all the years since, I’ve been to one more pro basketball game in Charlotte and maybe another one somewhere else. The other time I sat in the upper deck, and the Hornets – that’s how long ago it was – were playing the Indiana Pacers, and I’m relatively sure they lost.
It’s also true that no one really wants honesty. The only people we don’t ask “how you doing?” (or, “have you been to many NBA games lately?”) are the ones who will be honest. The only thing dishonest is when they begin by saying, “Oh, don’t ask.” Brace yourself. It’ll be a while. Breathing problems. Lumbago. A broken washing machine. Kids on drugs.
I try just to throw a wrinkly little curve when someone asks, “How you doing?” Usually I say either “about the same” or “relatively intact.”
Damn, I’m eccentric, ain’t I?
*I’m okay now. It was well over a year ago.