A few weeks ago I asked a waitress working in a restaurant in the Northern Cape: “How are you?” She replied: “I got up this morning.” She made me think about the question I posed to her, why I ask it, and she certainly made me think about not only her answer, but also the answers we often get from others to that standard question.
It was the first time someone had given me that answer. I have heard many, many replies to that question in my life – as I am sure you have, in your life. We ask that question as a matter of course, don’t we? We ask it to be civil, or “nice” human beings. We never really expect a truthful answer. The standard answer we expect is: “I am well, thank you. And how are you?” To which we merrily answer: “Well, thank you,” and we move swiftly along, even if our hearts are busy breaking at that moment.
So I thought: what if someone did take the question seriously, as we damn well should? In the course of a day (depending on where we find ourselves) we may on average meet and greet up to, say, ten people. What if each of them stopped you and told you long stories about how they really are? Since you so gallantly asked the question? Would we still be so casual in asking that question? Think about it: “How are you?” It is a question that could possibly take hours – if not days – to really answer properly. And, in this day and age – where people’s lives seem more complicated than ever, and most people are serial narcissists, one could expect to spend a large part of one’s day listening to their woes and fancies. And lest we forget, we may have to wade through the thousand photographs on the cell phones (tablets or phablets) of the latest additions to the family! So, what I guess I am asking is: do we really want to know how people are? Do we even have the time to listen to them should they wish to offload? Or, do we just continue lying to one another by giving the expected standard: “I am well, thank you. And how are you?”
Anyway, back to my waitress in the Northern Cape. Note: The “Northern Cape-ness” (sic) has no real significance. It is just a referent in the sense that I have never heard this response before, and she, my Northern Cape waitress was the first person to make me aware of this. And she, the Northern Cape waitress has a sullenness about her that intrigues me. What could she have meant with this response? And I guess I am thankful that she made me aware of my introspection with regard to the question.
Let’s see what the possibilities are: One: She is happy that she has another day to live and breathe. And that, in itself, is enough. Two: She is a depressive and usually doesn’t want to get up to face another day, but today she did, as she probably does every day, irrespective of how difficult it is for her to do so. Three: She wants to send me a message that I should mind my own business.
So, why am I even bothering her with this question? Four – more of a subtext: “Shut up, I am not in the mood for chit-chat or inane inquiries. Just tell me what you want for breakfast.”
I am sure there are a few more interpretations that escape me at present. Bottom line: when next you ask someone how they are, be abundantly aware of what your intentions are – do you really want to know the answer? Have you got the time to listen should the person want to tell you how he/she really is feeling? Do you ask the question just as a courtesy? Because that is what (civilised) people do?
I am reminded of a film I saw many moons ago. There is a scene where a woman’s husband (with whom she had been sharing her life for more than 40 years) passed away and as they sit at his wake her son asks her, what she is going to do now? The dialogue goes something like:
Mom: “I’ll go to Florida. That’s what we do. We go to Florida. When my father died, my mom went to Florida. When her father died her mom went to Florida. That’s what we do.”
Son: “But what do you want to do?”
Mom: “I want to die…until then, I go to Florida.”
The point: Does my Northern Cape waitress have a deep desire to die? Until then she gets up daily and instead of living, just survives her day, everyday?
By Rafiek Mammon