Random thoughts

Different Shades (Meanings) of “How Are You?”

A pebble on the beach, painted blue with the message, Know You Are Loved. Photo by nick fewings

Have you ever noticed how a simple question like “How are you?” holds a universe of unspoken meanings? Consider this: You’re rushing through the day, caught in the whirlwind of tasks, when a passing acquaintance throws the question your way. “How are you?” Almost reflexively, you reply with a cherry “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” The person reciprocates with a similar response and the exchange ends as quickly as it began.

But amidst these familiar exchanges, have you ever wondered what lies beneath these automatic responses? It’s like a dance we all know the steps to, yet the rhythm might hold a different meaning for each of us. This curiosity becomes especially intriguing when the person asking is a casual acquaintance or someone with whom we lack closeness. In such cases, asking “How are you?” appears to follow a social script, almost reflexive in nature, like the scenario described above. It might not necessarily indicate a genuine interest in the other person’s well-being or emotional state. That’s not to say the person asking is indifferent; rather, it could be a conditioned response, such that asking “How are you?” becomes simply another way of saying “hello” or “hi”, a societal norm that prompts expected positive responses. So, it is easy to see why most people who asked the question expected to hear, “I’m well/fine/good/great” or whatever positive adjective describing a state of positive health or mood. Any deviation from the norm might make some uncomfortable, as they might not be prepared to navigate another’s tale of ill health, not-so-good feelings or misfortune.

Conversely, many people may be reluctant or uncomfortable relating their true health or emotional state to people they are not close to. They can also often sense that the person asking is probably doing so out of politeness and not necessarily out of a genuine desire to understand their feeling at the time in question. So, they opt for positive responses, such as “I’m great, thank you”, which saves everyone from unintended awkwardness and discomfiture. In doing so, the respondents were actually being kind, whether they realised it or not, although it was likely they were just being polite.


From the preceding, it becomes apparent that this simple question, “How are you?”, is multifaceted and carries varied significance, with differing meanings based on societal norms and the depth of relationships. While acknowledging its psychological implications, especially with regard to the effects on individuals with a tendency to consistently suppress true feelings and default to positive responses, I’ll focus on examining how cultural influences shape our responses and how, within close connections, the question transforms into a gateway for genuine exchanges fostering deeper bonds.

Argument 1. The phrase “How are you?” often functions as a social nicety rather than a genuine inquiry into someone’s well-being. In fleeting interactions or with casual acquaintances, it becomes more of a customary greeting, much like saying “Hello” or “Hi”. Most respond with a positive affirmation of well-being, not necessarily reflecting their true state. This habitual exchange stems from societal norms where personal feelings are typically kept private. Consequently, deviating from expected responses might induce discomfort due to this social conditioning.

Argument 2: “How are you” can also be viewed as a subtle invitation to start or delve deeper into a conversation, especially in a social setting because it expects a reply that a simple “hello” or “hi” might not have elicited. This invitation may be more prevalent where two people are getting to know each other better or unavoidably momentarily thrust together, for instance, for work or business purposes. The respondents can steer conversations into a more substantive exchange, including providing personal insights without delving into intimate matters.

So, one might reply with something like, “I’ve been keeping busy with a few personal matters lately, but things are looking up.”

Another response could be, “I’ve been working on this new project. It’s been quite challenging, but I’m making progress.”

These responses allow for a glimpse into personal affairs without delving too deeply into intimate matters, steering conversations toward a more meaningful exchange.

Argument 3: In the realm of close relationships, the question “How are you?” transcends its casual facade. It becomes an earnest inquiry into someone’s well-being, rooted in genuine care and concern. This sincerity arises from the intimacy and depth of these connections.

Many of us will feel pushed away and even hurt if someone we are close to hides their true state of health or feeling from us when we ask how they were or did. In such cases, we are usually interested in the well-being of the person and what they are feeling because they are close to us. Maybe they are family, friends, people we work with, or people who are under our care. Here, we are invested in their well-being and not only in what they feel. It becomes very personal, for instance, in the case of family members or someone entrusted to our care. In such a case, the question “How are you?” goes beyond a greeting. It becomes an inquiry into the well-being of the person, serving as a gateway to understanding someone’s emotional state. Depending on the particular case, it could be an inquiry into their health, mood, work, studies, relationships or whatever else that might be going on in their life.

Photo of an elderly lady and a young woman. Caring - Photo by andrea piacquadio. Uploaded in - Pexels
An elderly Caucasian lady and a young woman greeting each other. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/joyful-adult-daughter-greeting-happy-surprised-senior-mother-in-garden-3768131/

Here, we care in a personal way, and there is no awkwardness in answering truthfully. Of course, I’m assuming that the one asking and the one answering are in a healthy relationship. Relationships, as used here, are not necessarily romantic and can also be between business partners, work colleagues, parents and their children/wards, friends, family, colleagues, doctor-patient, etc. So, a certain degree of familiarity exists between them.

Under this scenario, answering truthfully about our feelings or what we are going through comes naturally because of the close relationship with the person asking. We trust they really care about us, so we are more open to taking them into our confidence. So, we can actually say, “Not so well. I didn’t sleep last night because of whatever reason.” Or “My back pain is not getting any better, and the prescriptions are not helping.” Or “I’m still struggling with Algebra, and the exam is just around the corner.” The point is that in cases where we are familiar with and close to the person asking, we are more comfortable sharing exactly what we feel or what is going on in our lives.

Yet, it’s crucial to acknowledge the complexities that often accompany closeness. Even in these relationships, sharing isn’t always effortless. Sometimes, complexities, past experiences, or the fear of burdening loved ones might hinder complete openness.

These sincere inquiries into well-being foster a culture of support and empathy. They reinforce the notion that within the realms of trust and closeness, there exists a sanctuary where honesty and vulnerability are embraced.

Therefore, in close-knit relationships, the question “How are you?” isn’t a mere greeting—it’s a genuine bridge that connects hearts, fostering bonds strengthened by empathy, understanding and sincere care.


So, in considering the different shades of “How are you?” I believe that the question can mean any of the following:

  1. A social greeting from casual acquaintances that is synonymous with “Hello.” In this case, the person asked would probably say nothing about their true feelings if they are in a less-than-optimal state. They would, instead, reply with one or two positive words, followed by thanking the asker and probably returning the question. An answer can be along the lines of “I’m well, thank you. How are you?”
  2. An invitation to get to know more about a person or to invite a conversation when two people are unavoidably thrust together for some reason.
  3. An inquiry about our well-being from people with whom we are familiar and close. Here, the person answering may reveal something about their true state of health, feeling, or what they’re going through. The extent of what one might reveal is contingent on the degree of familiarity and closeness (including concern expressed) between the asker and the answerer. So, while you might tell a work colleague you didn’t sleep well the previous night, the complete medical history may be reserved for family members.

In conclusion, the seemingly simple question “How are you?” carries various layers of meaning depending on context and relationships. It can be a social formality, an invitation to conversation, or a genuine inquiry into someone’s well-being. Do these perspectives resonate with your experiences? Share your thoughts and encounters with us.

As you navigate your daily interactions, take a moment to consider the subtle implications of this common question. Perhaps it’s time to redefine our responses and foster more meaningful connections. Share this article with friends and spark a conversation about the multifaceted nature of “How are you?”


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