Monday, February 4, 2019

The Staleness of Status Questions

by John Boodhansingh of Zero Mindfulness

While I was sitting in a waiting area a few months ago, a customer came in who knew the worker who was standing just a few feet from the door.
“Hey, Tim! What’s up?”
“Danny! Not much. What’s up with you?”
“Not much.”

[Five silent seconds passed as the customer took a seat.]

“So what’s up, Tim?”
“Not much, Danny. What’s up with you?”
“Not much.”

[End conversation.]
Then there was this other time…
“Hey, how are you?”
“I’m doing okay. How ‘bout yourself?”
“I’m doing alright. How are you?”
Uhhh… What?

Me No Likey

I’m not much of a fan of asking people questions such as, “How’s it going?” and, “What’s up?”

I ask sometimes. Sometimes I genuinely care, and sometimes it’s the arising remnants of a bad habit. But mostly it’s irrelevant to me what people respond.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish the highest and best for everyone and do my best to interact compassionately with them.

But to me this bit of introductory conversational programming typically seems forced and shallow.

Here’s why…

8 Reasons

Reason 1: Programming and expectation.
My sense is that asking “How are you?” kinds of questions is something that everyone does because everyone else does it.

And at least by my perception, it seems people expect you to ask them, at least as a follow-up if they’d asked you first, lest you be judged “rude” or “uncaring.”

Reason 2: Self-validation.
I think a lot of people ask these status questions just to hear their gums flap. Unconsciously they want to create an opportunity to prove to themselves that they exist.

They may care about the people they ask, but more than that, they want to start a conversation so that they can reaffirm their own voice, opinions, beliefs, fears, experiences, behaviors, mannerisms, and so on.

Reason 3: Lying.
Plenty of people lie when asked how they’re doing.

We’re taught, sometimes harshly, that we’re supposed to be happy and agreeable all the time. We’re taught, if not through word then action, that if we’re unhappy and disagreeable then we don’t deserve love, affection, approval, etc.

With this sort of programming, people tend to either say they’re doing well even when they’re not and then maintain a facade, or they say they’re doing well only to break into a Negative Nancy sobfest as though it’s not completely contradictory to their claimed wellness.

Alternately, consider an experience we’ve probably all had a time or two in which someone responds to our inquiry by smiling and saying they’re well but are obviously feeling some kind of negativity toward us.

Maybe they resent us, maybe they’re jealous of us, or maybe whatever. The point is, they force a smiley, “all is well” exterior, but some cue they reveal unwittingly screams, “I’m only doing this to be agreeable! I hate you!

Also, think about some of the less common situations this lying issue could come up in.

A job interview is one. Most likely you would be welcomed with, “Hey. How are you doing today?” Even though you might be unsettled because your kids were misbehaving, you’re in the middle of a divorce, and you forgot to put deodorant on, expressing any of this would provide a poor first impression.

You’d like to be honest, it’s right to be honest, but sometimes people don’t accept that “life happens.” It’s a catch-22.

Reason 4: “Poor Me.”
I don’t want to open myself to a Negative Nancy sobfest.

If I start off by asking someone how they’re doing and they tell me they’re lousy, it seems to me that there’s an expectation that I should take the bait, put on a frowny face, and ask, “Oh, you poor thing. What’s wrong?” Since the forthcoming response is often evident in some way prior to the question being formed, I usually don’t even ask the question.

Once again, I wish people the highest and best. But in my experience, the majority of the time people are lousy it’s because they don’t bother making any true, positive changes in their lives. Why do I want to listen to other peoples’ stories of he-did-this, she-said-that, self-victimization?

The “Oh, you poor thing. What’s wrong?” response may sound compassionate, but this is far more sympathetic than empathetic: a person offering sympathy falls into the other’s issue and becomes trapped in the victim’s negativity, while a person offering empathy remains detached and allows the issue to be as is.

I’m not a sympathetic person. I will offer empathy, but to the victim empathy is dissatisfying because it doesn’t energetically support their “poor me” programming.

Reason 5: Attempted proof.
If I ask, “How are you?” there’s an expectation that you should care about me as I seem to care about you, and so you should reply with an inquiry as to how I am.

I feel that “How are you?”-type questions are sometimes therefore used, unconsciously, as a way for people to attempt to justify either that they’re helpless, powerless victims or that “all is well.”

By playing this tricksy inquiry game, I can be sure that they will ask me how I’m doing if I ask them first. This will provide me an opening to “legally file a complaint.” Or, They’ll feel guilty if I ask them how they’re doing but they don’t ask me, so they’ll certainly ask, and then I can tell them I’m doing okay. If I keep telling everyone I’m okay, then surely I must be okay.

Reason 6: I don’t like shallow or forced conversation.
I generally don’t like when people ask me status questions.

On one hand, I see certain of these inquiries as useful as conversation starters. For instance, if I see a friend, I don’t have an issue with him or her asking what I’ve been up to; I have no problem asking them the same.

On the other hand, these inquires more often seem like a useless nicety. How many times do you meet an acquaintance and offer hellos followed by status questions as the sum of the conversation? The former piece acknowledges one’s existence which is fine, but what function does the latter piece serve?

I’m reminded here of my occasional experience at the grocery store. I get in the checkout line and the cashier mournfully says, “Hi. How are you?” She is so unhappy and seemingly couldn’t care less, asking the question likely only because it’s company policy. These people would probably be incrementally happier by the mere removal of this must-ask constraint.

Is a simple, “Hello,” or a, “Good morning,” and a smile that inadequate?

Reason 7: I’m not so sure others like being asked, either.
Maybe sometimes. But think again of the cashier. When she desolately asks me, “How are you today?” Does she really want to hear, “I’m great!”? Does she really want to hear, “I feel lousy”?

And does she really want me to reciprocate by asking how she’s doing? Maybe. I don’t know. But I can see how she’s doing. She looks like she might leave her shift only to go jump off a bridge. It almost seems to me like asking would be a sarcastic cheap shot. Far better off, maybe, to say something silly to lighten the mood.

Otherwise, I’ve had plenty of encounters where the “How are you?” part of the conversation just seems “off.” It’s as though everyone knows the claimed “okay-ness” is no reflection of their respective realities, but no one wants to acknowledge it; in a way people feel like they’re having their lives pried into by more or less of a stranger who they don’t wish to divulge any information to.

Reason 8: It may be nosiness and privacy-denying.
Consider situations when you see an acquaintance across a parking lot and they yell to you, “HOW ARE YOU!?” Or maybe you’re leaving your house and someone sees you and loudly asks from halfway down the street, “HEY! WHAT'S UP? WHERE ARE YOU HEADED!?”


I’m the kind of person that will share a fair amount of personal information. Just look at this blog—I probably won’t ever know most people who read it, but I’ve not exactly hidden many of the woes and wonders of my life. Yet I've written these things willingly and, 99.9% of the time, in an appropriate time and space.

It seems not everyone has the filter needed to recognize what is and what is not appropriate based on factors such as the closeness of their relationship to the one in question and the environment they’re in. People lack both situational awareness and adequate respect for the privacy of others. Trouble is, they don't see this, as this requires that they've first developed internal situational awareness and self-respect.

Add to this that people generally give a lot more attention to the negatives than the positives.

If I feel lousy, whether I like it or not, to tell many people my truth that I feel lousy causes them to attach negatively to me. This creates an appearance, inadvertently and undesirably on my part, of a request for sympathy. It’s also, apparently, a call for the other to ask, “What’s wrong?” (Which is rather biased considering that when you tell someone you're doing well they don't ask you, “What's right?”)

But I don’t want any of this. I’m not asking for sympathy or a pity party or to give away TMI health information. I simply answered the question because I was asked.

Life as a Rollercoaster

Taking a different approach, a worthwhile question to ask is: How realistic, how practical, is asking someone how they’re doing, anyway?

A man is super happy at 4:00 because he just bought a new car. By 4:02 he’s pissed off because someone cut him off on the highway. On arriving at home he’s happy again because his wife had a delicious dinner ready. Then shortly after dinner he is unhappy again because his wife insisted on watching CNN.

When someone asks us how we’re doing, we don’t always go to the same place for the answer. One time we might answer based on our overall disposition, another time we might answer based on a recently suffered trauma, a third time we might answer based on how we’re feeling in the moment, and so on.

This makes the source of our answers to the “How are you?” question so very variable and flimsy. Include in this all the drama mentioned above, and, well, how much value can our answers really have?

The Truth Is Within You… And in Plain Sight

As we do inner-healing work and spiritually-oriented practices, significant portions of life become irrelevant to us. This is not necessarily to say that we don’t care about them—we still may—but we increasingly see people, places, things, and situations in both the proper context of our life paths and the greater scope of existence itself. We cease grasping for drama and so enable ourselves to see what is with compassion and detachment. We expand our conscious awareness to the subtleties of life that reveal the truth beyond the superficial.

Let me rephrase two particular points:

Firstly, since significant portions of life become irrelevant, we cease to invest ourselves in what all of our neighbors are doing or what our father’s brother’s friend that we think might be in the next aisle over at the toy store has been up to since we last saw him 23 years ago.

By all means, friendliness is great—this isn’t about having an apathetic attitude. But when we open up to what is true for us, as individuals, we can’t help but see the extraneous as extraneous and thus irrelevant (unless it becomes relevant). Rote acts of meaningless data collection such as habitually asking status-type questions become undesirable.

Secondly, the opening created through self-decluttering allows intuitive insights to come to us internally about the people, places, things, and situations we could once see only coarsely and believed we had to seek answers about by external means. With intuition, the truth is often presented without any need for overt inquiry.

Facial tension is noticed, voice nuances are noticed, energy fields are noticed, facades are noticed, bodily posturing is noticed, breathing patterns are noticed, and on and on and on. Sometimes intuition zaps information directly into one’s mind with no apparent reference to external details.

This information speaks volumes compared to the emptiness shared through most status-based interactions.

Conscious Conversation

I once watched a clip from a Mooji Satsang in which Mooji responded to letters.

(For lack of better recall on my part…) Somehow tying it in to the validity of Mooji as a spiritual teacher, someone had written in saying that Mooji always seems to be followed around by attractive, young women; what’s the deal? Is he dating them or something?

(Again, as I roughly recall…) Mooji replied that he’s not “with” any of them and that he barely even knows them. He operates an ashram/retreat center and the women feel intuitively guided to help him. Maybe some are in relationships, maybe some are not. Same could be said about whatever else their lives entail. He knows almost nothing personal about any of them.

In a much more overarching way, this bit with Mooji is the epitome of what I’ve been getting at. People talk so much about so much, but ironically, were we to look at the true value of what we’re saying, we’d find that we’re often saying very little about very little: we’re repeating the same things over and over again and most of them add little-to-no real value to our lives.

In saying this I’m not suggesting that we should all become Moojis or hermits or take vows of silence or anything like that. This is about being self-aware and making conversation conscious.

When we’re living in a state in which our conscious awareness is enamored by trivialities, our attention is scattered and shallow. This makes us unable to discern and focus on the things of greater import that can only come to us when silent and still within.

And this is pivotal, not simply because, hey, look at the benefits, but because these benefits are the very things we’ve been unwittingly seeking in all of our unconscious interactions with others.

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