Sarah Chana Radcliffe
Chaya is waiting for her turn at the bank when Rifky — a former neighbor — suddenly appears behind her in line. The following conversation ensues. (Chaya’s thoughts are in brackets preceding her actual words.)
Rifky: Hi! How are you? It’s been quite a while!
Chaya: Yes, it has. Good to see you!
Rifky: How’s your mom doing?
Chaya: [Mom has been in a terrible state ever since we moved her to eldercare.] Good, good, baruch Hashem.
Rifky: That’s good! Did you hear that my Elisheva is engaged?
Chaya: No, I didn’t. Mazel tov!
Rifky: You still have some singles, don’t you?
Chaya: [Do we have to go there?] Yes.
Rifky: Oh well, everything in the right time, right? How’s your Shoshi doing — I think the last time I saw her was around six years ago — she’d just had a baby. She must have a couple more by now, right?
Chaya: [No, but it’s too complicated to explain right now.] Not yet.
Rifky: Are they having infertility issues? I know an excellent doctor.
Chaya: [Oy vey, how do I make this conversation end?] I can’t believe how long this line is!
Rifky: Yeah, it’s always like this here. Should I give you Dr. Silverstone’s number?
Chaya: [You’re not getting the message.] No, thanks. Oh, the teller is calling me. Well, good seeing you!
“Hi, how are you” is a formula, a part of a social ritual that facilitates interpersonal connection. Its underlying meaning is something like “I acknowledge your presence.” The formula can be offered to a wide range of people, from those we don’t know at all to those we’ve spent many hours of our life with.
When uttered by strangers, acquaintances, neighbors, and colleagues, the correct reply is some version of “fine” — whether or not that’s a truthful answer.
Some people mistake the greeting for an actual question that requires a detailed answer: They may launch into a description of their recent adventures, including details of their family life, their health, their work and leisure activities, and any other topic they want to share.
This kind of answer is best reserved for friends who have actually stopped what they’re doing to listen intently to your answer, as opposed to those who are uttering the greeting while passing you on the sidewalk, finishing a transaction at the store, filling a shopping cart, or doing anything other than sitting down for a personal visit.
Let’s Not Go There
Another social ritual involves asking after the welfare of loved ones. “How are your parents? How are the kids?”
These questions are not only innocent and well-intentioned, they’re also meant to create feelings of inclusivity, caring, and bonding. Here too the correct answer is some version of “fine” — no matter who asks the question. After all, the answer necessitates sharing private information about people who haven’t given you their permission to share it. Would you want your sister revealing to her acquaintances that you’ve been struggling in an abusive marriage? The laws of lashon hara are easily transgressed once we start talking about people. Better not to go there.
Moreover, when asking a person about her well-being or that of her loved ones, we are practically insisting that she lie. After all, do we really expect that our friends and acquaintances and all their relatives are “fine”? It would be rather odd to find that the issues that plague human beings — illness, financial problems, marriage problems, difficulties with children, addictions, mental health challenges, legal tangles, employment struggles, singlehood, infertility, loss, traumatic events, and so much more — affect everyone in the world except those in our own small social circle (and their relatives)!
Forcing people to say “fine” when it isn’t true can cause them mental and physical strain, increase their stress, and sometimes even aggravate their depression — not a very friendly thing for us to do.
It’s interesting that, on Shabbos, we’re spared the stress of the social ritual. The simple greeting “Good Shabbos” requires nothing of us other than returning it. No questions asked; no lies spoken.
During the week, we can achieve a similarly peaceful effect by changing our ritual greeting to “Hi! Nice to see you!” By avoiding potentially distressing questions, you will always leave people feeling happy that they saw you too.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Family First, Issue 550)