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The "How are you?" Challenge

Written by Koen Smets (7 Oct 2016)

It's not how you say it that matters. The connection makes a difference.

Here's a challenge: on the World Mental Health Day, October 10, ask five people "How are you?", and make sure to take the time to listen to the true answer. You might just have practised some invaluable psychological first aid, which is this year's theme.

Is "How are you" not the way you'd say it? By all means use your own words for it. Here are some alternatives, if you find yourself in these regions of Britain:

  • Wigan: Eaw't diggl'in?
  • Black Country: How yam?
  • Newcastle: Ya'aalreet?
  • Liverpool: Alright?

On no account use "Wassuuuuup?", though. The Guardian explains why.

If you're speaking another language, the colloquial greetings work likewise. They usually ask the very same question, inquiring after the general condition of the person we meet:

  • French: Comment ça va?
  • German: Wie geht's?
  • Dutch: Hoe gaat het?
  • Italian: Come stai?
  • Spanish: ¿Cómo estás?
  • Swedish: Hur är det?
  • Finnish: Miten menee?
In monkey language: "Ook ook?"

This is a good first step in offering psychological first aid: reintroducing meaning into our greetings. It doesn't take much effort to take real interest in the psychological state of our friends when we meet them. All too often we simply assume people are doing fine: "All right", "Tout va bien", "Ihan hyvin". And it is not just in stoic Britain that we are unlikely to answer negatively to the "How Are You" question, or to reply we are not so good. It has universally become a symbolic phrase with very little meaning, a question we ask automatically, and to which we respond mechanistically.

If we genuinely want to hear how our friends or acquiantances are feeling, we may discover a need that we can easily fulfil: simply listen. And perhaps no more is needed. Just engaging and listening can be the equivalent to a band aid that will effectively help heal a small cut or graze. If their need is more substantial, then listening is like making the victim of an accident comfortable, and stem the blood flow while we wait for an ambulance. We can help them explore what kind of professional support they could benefit from, and assure them we have their back.

So embrace the challenge: ask five people "How are you?", make it a sincere question, and prepare to listen to the true answer. Sometimes first aid can be as simple as that.

Read also: What should be in the psychological first aid kit?