Why can’t people just say “hello”?

This post will be a mess as I am early into my new widowhood and lost in a maze of paperwork and sadness.

I have long disliked “how are you?” as a greeting because people in very bad circumstances are forced by societal convention to cough up a “I am fine, how are you?” even if their insides are in despair and near brokenness…and nothing can suck your spirit like being forced to say that you are “fine”. Trying to go against the cultural grain and actually answer that question honestly with a “Suicidal teen in mental hospital, thanks” or  “Baby on a vent and not expected to survive, how are you?” are seen as inappropriately hostile.

When I was 26, I was pregnant and had a toddler I was raising alone as my husband was in a war and my family was very faraway. I went to work a 12 hour night shift on a day when “The Ground War” broke out (after weeks of bombs from the air in the first Gulf War which turned out to look like a mother’s kisses compared to the war after 9/11, but noone yet saw that coming) and I knew my husband was in peril. A Doctor at work greeted me with a “how are you?” and my answer was “somewhat marginal” stopped him in his tracks, I can still se the look on his face… a look like he had just learned something.

So I went into Walmart last evening and the cashier greets me with a version of “how are you?” and I consider “Dead husband, and you?” as an answer but instead chose “fine” ….like my newly bereaved parents, I don’t even have the fight in me to rail against it.

A few months ago,  I read the local newspaper and it had various articles “Local woman raped, taken to hospital”, “Tragic car accident, taken to hospital”, “Random stabbing, victim to hospital” and it struck me that all their relatives would be entering through the front door of a hospital where the greeters have been instructed to say “How are you?”. I wrote a suggestion to the hospital that people be greeted with a “Hello, welcome” instead of “How are you?” but it was ignored as the greeters still “how are you?” everyone (last time I observed anyhow).

I met with a set of newly bereaved parents near the hospital front entrance and we watched this trainwreck of communication happen in front of us about 30 times and the dad told me how much he hated it and yet even when I explained all this to a person with the influence to change the practice, upon leaving her office to do a task together, I watched her mindlessly say “How are you?” to no less than 834 people (OK, not 834, it just FELT LIKE 834 and I wonder how many of them were in some degree of despair).

Could we, as Bereavement Professionals and Bereaved people change our culture? Could we teach others how much better it is for a hurting person to hear “Hello” or “nice to see you” or “greetings” or “welcome!” or “Shalom” over the stupid, empty and mindless “how are you” ?


  1. Heather Acors

    Tammy, I Love this! This really touched me because I remember when I was sent to the hospital from my OB/GYN’s office in 2010 when the doctor couldnt find my daughter’s heartbeat. Being taken to the labor and delivery room, walking in alone still not knowing if my baby was still alive inside me, a nurse walks in and says to me “How are you” I just broke down in tears. I think people really dont “think” before they speak. This defiently is something that people should do especially in the hospitals.

  2. I totally understand what you are talking about, Tammy. This is the exact reason we designed and distribute (free of charge) the “Griefing – Handle with Care” lapel pins. Our goal is to have these lapel pins recognized worldwide. Anyone wanting one or more, please let us know (www.LLOST.org) and we will get them in the mail or delivered to you immediately.

  3. Eileen, Julia and I both wore our broken heart pins to the funeral in Montana…I wish I had thought of it for the service in Virginia, but my brains had turned to mush. The pins are great.

  4. Went to a mall yesterday. I didnt previously realize that our local mall was so quiet, calm and low-key…this mall was near a large city and everyone there seemed very intense…women were all very dressed-up (even wearing cruel shoes..why would ANYONE shop in cruel shoes??) and the sales people were all very intense.

    So retail folks in almost every store I entered approached me with an intense and in-my-face “HOW ARE YOU????”. I tried to deal with it normally, but eventually it beat the shit out of me and I nearly melted down in the WHite House-Black Market store.

    Why the hell cant they say “welcome to blah blah store” . I wish I could write an open letter to retail america. I am not likely to go back to that mall anytime soon

  5. Rebecca Summers

    I’m experiencing exhausting and overwhelming grief right now. Our infant daughter died 4 weeks ago and I hate when people ask, “How are you?” Many times I’m silent and don’t bother to answer. I figure my friends and family who know what happened know how I am. I’m not well. I’m devastated. But to say this over and over again is exhausting. So silence works many times. It keeps the tears from falling all the time.
    When strangers ask, I reply with a “fine.” Most times I don’t have the energy to say anything different. I just want to get in and get out (if it’s a store). One thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to “perform” for others, whether strangers or not. If a storekeeper smiles at me and asks how I am, I can say “fine” without smiling back, I can turn away from them, etc. I am grieving and I don’t have to apologize for this or act like I’m not, or pretend my life is great just so others don’t feel uncomfortable.

    • Rebecca, Im so sorry for your loss. I think we are both into a strange/awkward stage of grief where some of the initial shock may have worn off but the real deep healing hasnt started yet. I hope you are surrounded by people who understand that integrating a loss this profound into ones life takes time…and by time I mean years, not months.

      I have felt a strange pressure from people to exhibit “just the right amount” of grief…like if I rant into them in an especially good or bad moment they would be wierded out by either extreme, they want me to be sad….just the right amount of sad.

      I also hate the “you will have good days and bad days” crap…it feels more like good minutes and bad minutes…I cant even imagine being either really good or bad for an ENTIRE day…what the hell are they talking about?

      • Rebecca Summers

        I completely understand. An entire good day? What does THAT feel like? You’re correct in saying it feels more like good minutes and bad (sad) minutes. I’ve read enough on grief to know not to feel crazy when I bawl for one minute, then the sadness subsides and I’m “fine” for the next hour. Until the sadness either creeps in or pounces on me once again. Grief is unforgiving.

  6. I have trouble answering the “how are you” greeting when it comes on a good day from someone I know, but yes, coming from strangers when you are in pain is a special form of torture.

  7. Jamie

    When my sister died unexpectedly, I was so shocked that I let social pleasantries go completely. When people asked how I was, I said, “My sister just died”. Most people were shocked, but kind. The retail staff completely avoided me though when I told them I was shopping for her funeral- it made me angry. They could have pulled out dark clothes for me; I obviously needed help! Anyway, you shouldn’t have to hide your pain from the world- there are plenty of us that can take it and shoulder some for you; even strangers. I am praying and crying for you….with you…..

    • 4+ months later, I am better, I can hear a stupid, hollow “How are you?” and do OK with it…I nearly had a meltdown 3 weeks after he died on a shopping trip…at perhaps “how are you” number 34 I told her exactly how I was. What this teaches me, however is that there are always hurting people around us who need kind greetings.

  8. Lindsey

    The “How are you?” niceties are exactly why I haven’t returned to church since the loss of my baby early in pregnancy. I am not comfortable pretending everything is okay (when it’s not) with a response of “fine” or “good” or even “okay”, but I am most certainly not ready to explain to dozens of friends and acquaintances that my baby died before I got to hold him/her.

    I do not have any qualms returning to church except the social aspect. I do not have any anger or bitterness toward God–in fact, it is my faith and the comfort of Scripture that has gotten me through these horrible days. I only wish there were a more socially acceptable response for the grieving. For the few friends I have encountered since I lost my baby, I have simply replied, “It’s been a rough week, but God is good,” and leave it at that.

    • Lindsey,

      Ive been known to gripe about this regularly about this and I have submitted an essay on this topic to a Christian Magazine…look for it the week of Feb 18th on CatholicStand.com

      In it, I suggest that people say “Its nice to see you, I think of you all the time” …I like your answer though…it honors both your feeling and Gods goodness.

  9. just found your blog…shortly, about “How are you?”- I teach my ESL college students that most Americans ask this question simply as a greeting and don’t really want a true answer. This drives me crazy! I tell them- if I ask How are you? I really want an answer!

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