There’s a miscommunication between Hungarians and me. I ask questions, and they answer them. What are they thinking? Clearly they do not understand the cultural nuance of American English. When I say, “How are you?” the only acceptable answer is “I’m fine, how are you?” At which point I will say, “I’m fine also, thank you.” We will then go about our business. Honestly, is this so difficult?
The other day, I exited the train and walked into work with a young man, perhaps in his mid 20s. He greeted me from behind. I hadn’t noticed him. “Oh gosh, I didn’t see you. Hi, how are you?” “I’m OK. I didn’t sleep last night and now my throat hurts. I think cold air blew on my neck and it has made me sick. I am starting to cough. Today, when my alarm went off, I was very tired. I’m still tired.”
Wow. What did I say to elicit that?
This interchange highlighted two facts. Hungarians do not know how to answer simple questions. And every last one of them feels cold air on the neck is a health risk with consequences ranging from scratchy throat to early and painful death. And it has nothing to do with age. Twenty year olds, and their grandmothers, have admonished me for not wearing a scarf.
This highlighted a third fact. I’m heartless.
Why do I ask questions, when I have no interest in the answer? (Ironically, a question I asked myself with no expectation of an answer). Perhaps it makes me appear nice. But does it actually make me nice?
After listening to the health woes of some 30 Hungarians, a man the other day responded, “Ummmm, I’m fine.” I grabbed onto the “ummm” sensing this was a Hungarian who understood the expectations of the linguistic dance. I laughed and told him he was the first “fine” Hungarian I had met.
He admitted he knew the drill – he understood I was not asking a question but rather the question was solely part of the greeting. Then, he smiled and added, “I really don’t understand it though. Why do you ask questions when you have no interest in the answer?” (A question I hoped was rhetorical.)
I thought about this. What if I walk into work with someone dangling at the end of their emotional rope? Maybe their husband lost his job. Their child is sick, again. Their son dropped out of school. They are worried. They didn’t sleep last night. And then we greet each other. I ask “How are you?” And they respond, “I’m fine.” Is that really the answer I want?
Old habits die hard. When someone asks me how I am, probably I will say, “I am fine. How are you?” Then I will brace myself for their response. I will listen and by doing so, hope I am lightening their load. I will smile and offer some words of encouragement.
Of course, should they answer, “I’m fine.” a small part of me will think, “Oh thank goodness.” Change is, after all, a slow process.