I’m guilty of responding to Are you OK? with a lie, which sometimes leads to another “Are you OK” if I happen to start crying in the presence of a fellow human. At that point, asking me “Are you OK?” is miles away from consoling me. A bear hug might help. A moment or two of silence (except for my stifled sobs) also helps. The silence is an acknowledgment that something is wrong without forcing me to pinpoint the evil.
I often cry out of frustration, not sadness–my bottling up whatever’s been bothering me no longer effective. Some people cry in the spur of the moment. I once saw a Drunk Crier, and I had no idea how to handle the pouring emotion. I handed her stuffed animals. I patted her shoulder. I told her everything would be alright.
To understate, woeful crying puts people in a funless corner, yet tears are a crucial part of the human condition. According to WebMD, crying is more than the emotional binary happy-sad. Crying can be a response to witnessing beauty. Jodi DeLuca, PhD, notes that crying can act as the body’s survival mechanism saying “You need to address something.” Crying can be a stress reliever. Lastly, there’s the crying to get the upperhand in a social situation.
Whatever the purpose for crying, it shows us that people are not living in a perpetual OK-ness. It’s not healthy to wave off a friend or relative’s concern over our emotional state.
“Are you OK?” deserves more than “I’m fine” because it’s OK to care and it’s OK to feel.
More often than not, people respond to the question “Are you OK” with lies, and we’ve made it culturally acceptable to lie about our emotional state. The lies start with using the bland “fine” to receive the daily “How are you?”
I’ve found that my conversations fare better the times when I answer that “I’m stressed” or “I’m not feeling well.” While the conversations aren’t groundbreaking, they’re more productive than the added up small talk.
In 2014, Alina Simone, who grew up in the U.S. and has Russian parents, contributed to a New York Times OP-ED in which she shared her experience with the “How are you?” question. In Russian culture, that question is answered. Sometimes the moment gets awkward. Simone recalls times when her Russian grandpa would respond with “Terrible” and bitterly remark that old age is terrible.
To understate, woeful crying puts people in a funless corner, yet tears are a crucial part of the human condition.
Simone puts things simply: in America, the OK question is a statement, a hello. She also refers to the Oxford English Dictionary, where indeed, “how are you” has its origins as a greeting.
Eva Glasrud, psychology content specialist at The Happy Talent Blog, has also been thinking a lot about the OK question and response in the context of visible distress. Glasrud explains that when someone poses the question, s/he is in a position of what’s called agency, or power. The person receiving the question can interpret the question as it’s intended, as communion–a sense of compassion and bonding. The person can also interpret the question as an agency challenge and respond with less than the truth, to feel in power.
While there’s a problem in the way we interpret “Are you OK?,” people also have to improve the quality of their concerned questions, especially with close friends. Glasrud admits she doesn’t have proven-effective questions or comments, but her advice is to “Be a better conversationalist. Treat people like people.” I agree. Open communication matters.
“Fine” shouldn’t be programmed into our mouths. The human emotional repertoire is greater than fine.