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"How are you?"

Something has to be done about this greedy, open maw of a question
Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - 16:50

AS this is an inaugural blog entry, it is fitting to begin it with the most loathsome greeting of all time: “How are you?”. It is a menace, this question. What does it even mean, "how" you are? Strictly speaking, instead of asking after someone's well-being, aren't you actually asking how the person came into existence? And wouldn't the answer be invariably rooted in sweaty and sticky circumstances that are not fit to print? (Speaking of "sweaty", "sticky" and "not fit to print", welcome to this blog. I hope you visit regularly. You can always shower after.)

Where this asinine question is concerned, it is always the people who couldn't be less arsed about how you are who plague you with it. As I write this, I am holidaying in the very country where this question blooms like a persistent yeast infection - the United States. In the last four days that I’ve been here, I have been variously asked: “How’s it going?”, “How’re you today?” and “How’re we doing?”. I have decided that there is a direct and dollar sign-laden correlation between enthusiasm of Howareyou-ing and the expectation of a tip.

On a trip to the Grand Canyon, for example, our tour guide asked us how we were doing on the bus every 2 miles (I still don’t know how far 2 miles is, but until the Americans come to their senses and start using the metric system, ‘2 miles’ is what I’ll call every distance). And, as aggressively as he’d enquired of our collective well-being, he’d also determinedly pointed us in the direction of leaving him a tip. (“Now, ah know folks from outside the US want to know what these here words ‘tipping’ or ‘gratuity’ mean, and since ah sincerely believe that every question deserves an ahn-sah, lemme tell ya”).

Conversely, in the 24-hour laundromat where I now sit, waiting for my underthings to finish their sudsy round of cleansing (hey, you wanted to know how I was), the only greeting the Latino laundromat owner barked at me was: “Small load washers over here!”. No tip, no question, no problem.

So, in Singapore where tipping is extremely rare, this question has been adapted for local and novelly exasperating circumstances. Here, ‘How are you’ is not asked by ingratiating waiters or grubby tour guides, but by people who generally want something from you and usually have nothing to offer in return. In my line of work, that’s usually a PR person. This question usually precedes something unwelcome, some request that is either arduous, irksome or both. I have never received a phonecall that began with "How are you?", followed by "Could I offer you a million dollars?" or "Hey I've got a spare kidney. Want one?”. Instead it’s: “Hey, I’ve got this last-minute interview tomorrow with some chap from out of town who is unable to comment on the local market but has to be interviewed by local media so I can justify my retainer, so would you please come and be a warm behind in a seat?”

So primed have I become for some wheedling question, that whenever I get a phonecall enquiring about the how-ness of my being, I am automatically filled with the urge to bludgeon the caller to death with the phone in my hand ("How do you like how I am NOW?").

I actually have no issue with telling anyone just how I am or just what is going on in the rich and ever-varying internal landscape that is Joyce-land. On a normal workday, the answer ranges between “Irritated” and “Very irritated”.

The real problem is what this question represents. It is the verbal version of the outstretched palm, a yawning and yet-to-be-articulated request. It conveys some kind of demand, of which the onus is very unfairly on the listener to fulfill. It cloaks a mercenary transaction with the pretext of congeniality, and in a world where genuine goodwill is all too rare, do we really need more fugazi versions of it?

The thing is, the Chinese had gotten it right from the start. "Ni hao?” is both greeting and enquiry rolled into one, swiftly followed by the matter at hand, with no room for an answer. The subtext here is: We don't care how you're doing, please don't tell us, here’s what we really want from you.

Amidst all this ranting, lies an important geopolitical lesson for all you policy thinktank wogs. Are you feeling threatened by unrelenting Chinese expansion? Scared of the mainland's military muscle-flexing in the South China Sea? Quaking in your boots over the rising importance of the yuan? The solution is simple, really. Get over to Beijing and get the Chinese to stop saying "Ni hao?" and start saying "How are you?" instead. Before long, they'll be too busy bludgeoning each other with phones to bother with world domination.