Discover more from Trying with Emma Barnett
Trying...not to bottle it
How are you? Three little words that too often fail in their mission.
Because we traditionally place that question right at the start of a conversation or meeting - it rarely elicits the truth. We gloss over it or lie immediately, saying whatever banal response comes to mind that won’t disrupt the rhythm of polite greetings. An important question is rendered pointless, throttled to death by pleasantries.
It was a question on my mind this week as I tried to gauge the mood of those around me waiting patiently along the Mall to see the Queen’s coffin on its final journey from Buckingham Palace.
I was part of the BBC’s ceremonial commentating team, stationed opposite Clarence House, the residence that has been home to the new King and the Queen Consort for nearly the last 20 years.
Mood and real mood are hard things to define. Sometimes there are other clues beyond what we feel we can say. The little girl next to me with a black ribbon in her hair; the woman wearing a Union Jack scarf holding a crumpled up tissue; the green beret-wearing veteran who sat on a camp chair until it was time to rise and respect his monarch.
But even then, you run the risk of projecting. A proper answer to that inquiry is the only way we can learn how others are truly feeling, either verbally or in written form.
It is why often in my interviews, when they are of a more personal rather than political flavour, “how are you?” is a question I ask half way or nearly two-thirds through. Rarely at the beginning. The interviewee has warmed up; perhaps any nerves may have dissipated and they might be ready to share.
While it is a massive step in the real world, far from microphones, to go there and honestly say how you feel - it is equally as important for the questioner to be ready to listen and receive.
One of my party tricks is to disrupt normal patterns of conversation. If things are getting stale or insincere, I have been known to launch a verbal bomb mid-story, such as: “Should I carry on or does this not really interest you?” is a favourite. I don’t do it a lot - but when I do, I genuinely want to know, especially if I see eyes glazing. Moreover, I am happy to change course.
Another recent example pertains to the three words in question: I was walking around the park with a male friend I adore but don’t see often and he asked me how I was. Without missing a beat I replied: “Do you really want to know?” And he slowed his pace, thought about it and said “yes”, almost a bit defensively. And I said: “Ok then, I will tell you.”
Out poured how I felt about our latest round of IVF. As I don’t talk about my raw feelings aloud with many, I wanted to ensure I had the best of him. A much better and more satisfying conversation followed, as we pushed his sleeping young baby around the park in the heat of an afternoon and I shared something of the knackering quest to have another child.
There is also an irony that in this day and age, when it has never been easier to communicate, so often we are forced to resort to text message - a space where nuance can so easily get lost - to conduct our friendships, in lieu of a face-to-face meeting. And we are failing to have the conversations that do help change something within us. Or even better, provide a new perspective and disrupt our private mental loop.
I have written before about how much I love my trusty landline - as a 37 year old. Hell I bloody loved it in my twenties. I never lose signal and a phone call with friends is far more satisfying (even if I freak my them out by calling them, especially from an unknown number). My mother’s unofficial evening telephone rota with her friends remains an inspiration - despite how time and energy consuming it seems.
Someone recently told me of a woman, who mid cancer treatment, replied in a WhatsApp group to the question, how are you, with this zinger: “I need more than this form of conversation is giving me.” The questioner picked up the phone and rang immediately.
Of course there is a place and time for text messages - sharing information, photos and quick updates. Voice-notes are also wonderful, a mid point between call and message. But a monologue is still performative and a stream of consciousness that no one can interrupt.
There is also the issue of knowing your audience and who you can say what to - but sometimes friends are better than you think, especially if you truly go there.
I talked in one of my first newsletters about the unique role of IVF fairies and friendships formed through common experiences. Whether that’s around a time and place, like university, or an experience, such as grief.
But don’t be afraid to try other friends, who might not seem like they are up to the job - but you might be surprised who can handle a real answer to “how are you” and who needs it asking in return. Just don’t forget to listen.
Trying with Emma Barnett is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.