When you ask a friend “How are you?” you usually get a short, surface-level response, some variation of:
Rarely does the recipient reveal much, if anything, about how they’re actually doing — even if we sincerely want to know the answer. Why is that? As journalist Ashley Fetters wrote for The Atlantic in April, it’s because the question often “functions as a perfunctory greeting and nothing more.”
In other words, humans are savvy social creatures who understand that “how are you” is generally employed as a “well-intended nicety,” said San Francisco psychotherapist Kathleen Dahlen deVos — not a genuine inquiry about their well-being.
“As such, we usually supply an answer that’s of equivalent depth and on par with what’s expected by the greeter: ‘Fine, thanks,’” she said.
So if it’s an honest answer you’re after, you’re probably asking the wrong question. By changing up your phrasing, you can send the message that you’re looking to have a deeper conversation — not just exchange pleasantries.
“People not only need to feel that the other person truly wants to know how they are doing,” said Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Abigail Makepeace, “But they also need to know that confiding in someone else will not scare them away.”
What To Ask Instead Of ‘How Are You?’
Between the ongoing pandemic, loved ones lost to COVID-19, financial hardships, police violence, racial unrest and a tense election season on top of other everyday stressors, this year has been a particularly challenging one. It’s fair to say that a great many of us are nowhere near “fine.” So how can we check in on each other in more meaningful ways? Below, some alternatives to the generic “how are you” that are more likely to elicit a candid answer.
When one of deVos’ dear friends was going through a difficult loss, someone in her life would always ask, “How are you today?” Adding that one word made such a difference.
“It changed the nature of this whole question from something that felt hollow, overwhelming and nonspecific, to a question she felt more safe and sure of answering,” deVos said. “‘How are you today’ is an inquiry into what is true for someone in this moment, in the past few hours and can feel more approachable because it’s specific.”
2. How are you holding up?
Posing the question this way acknowledges that things are hard right now and implies that you don’t expect the other person to say they’ve been well.
“The slight modifications signal to us that it’s OK to shift a bit away from the standard ‘good’ or ‘fine’ answers, and acknowledge, perhaps, that we are not ‘good’ or ‘fine’ in general right now,” deVos said.
3. I’ve been thinking about you lately. How are you doing?
Telling this person they’ve been on your mind shows you do care, which may make them feel more comfortable opening up.
“Prefacing the question [this way] signals to the other person that you’re truly invested in their reply and that you’re eager to hear whatever it is that they feel comfortable sharing,” Makepeace said.
“People not only need to feel that the other person truly wants to know how they are doing, but they also need to know that confiding in someone else will not scare them away.”
– Abigail Makepeace, marriage and family therapist
4. What’s been on your mind recently?
As Fetters, The Atlantic writer, put it, this question “suggests openness to a deeper conversation.”
“You might also follow up on a worry or concern they’ve mentioned before, and check in on how they’re feeling about it now,” she added.
5. Is there any type of support you need right now?
“This not only telegraphs to your loved one that you are interested in what they may be struggling with, but reinforces that you care about that struggle and are eager to help,” Makepeace said.
6. Are you anxious about anything? Are you feeling down at all?
If the suggestions above aren’t getting much of a response, try asking a more pointed question about what you suspect this person might be feeling.
“Providing ‘feeling state phrases’ can help your friend begin the process of verbalizing their experiences,” Makepeace said. “Also, wording your questions in this manner lets your friend know that their answer won’t catch you off guard and that you’re seeking truly intimate and honest communication.”
Another way to encourage them to open up? Lead by example: By being vulnerable about your own mental or emotional state, you may prompt your loved one to talk more openly about theirs.
“When you speak truthfully about your own experience, you give the other person permission to share without fear or risk,” Makepeace said.
And if they’re still not opening up to you, that’s OK. Just checking in shows your deep care and concern — and that alone is powerful. Let them know that when they’re ready to talk, you’ll be there to listen.
How To Meaningfully Support Someone Who’s Struggling
Social distancing measures have made it harder to physically be there for our people in the ways we’re used to. But you can still have their back — even from afar — during this difficult time.
For starters, ask if they’re looking for advice or just a listening ear. This is important because you want to offer the kind of support your friend is looking for. When someone’s trying to vent, receiving unsolicited advice — even if it’s well-intentioned — can be frustrating.
“Sometimes all we need is someone to listen to us, nonjudgmentally, while we process something,” deVos said. “Other times, we actually need support in figuring out a strategy, path forward, or ways to cope.”
“The slight modifications signal to us that it’s OK to shift a bit away from the standard ‘good’ or ‘fine’ answers, and acknowledge, perhaps, that we are not ‘good’ or ‘fine’ in general right now.”
– Kathleen Dahlen deVos, psychotherapist
In the same vein, ask if there’s anything you can do to help. They may not have an answer for you, but “merely asking the question may prompt further self-reflection, and at the very least, communicate an eagerness to help in the future,” Makepeace said.
Regardless of what this friend is going through, they may benefit from talking to a mental health professional. Make it easier for them by offering to do some of the legwork: find therapists that take their insurance, ask for referrals from your clinician or social circle or suggest some other affordable options like TalkSpace or BetterHealth.
And lastly, continue to check in on them regularly. They may not always be in the mood to talk but at least they’ll feel supported.
“These check-ins do not have to always directly address your friend’s struggles,” Makepeace said. “Sharing things that have brought you joy can bring joy to others. Sometimes, simply sending a funny text or an inspirational quote can be just as impactful as speaking deeply.”