It was cold and it was windy. My red and increasingly numb nose was snugly tucked into the fleece scarf I had woven around my head. I was sleep-deprived and grumpy and buried not under my duvet and pillows like I wanted more than anything, but under an Everest-sized mountain of responsibilities.

There I was, annoyed at the world and wanting to rant to my best friends or blast sad music into my brain to break the tidal wave of thoughts when suddenly, an arm reached around me, jolting me from my spiral of self-pity.

“Hey!” I forced a smiled back. “How are you!”

I froze, suddenly annoyed by the “I’m all right” that had become a mindless, second-nature kind of response.

We’ve all experienced the casually thrown question — usually elevated over the cacophonous commotion of the dining hall while waiting at the drink dispensers or as you’re cutting through Cross Campus rushing to a lecture you’ve set yourself up to be late for.

While it is a sign of politeness, the question means nothing, really. The person asking it does it out of some peculiar socially constructed habit and so we’ve constructed our socially acceptable set of responses.

Sometimes, time allows for a smile or a shrug. Other times, you have the fortune of choosing from an exclusive few words: I’m good, okay, fine, sleepy, stressed. You come to learn that answering with anything else — despite what everyone says — is not entirely acceptable. More often than not, however, by the time you open your mouth or pause your music to reply, the person in question has long since disappeared into a sea of students.

Aren’t we all taught, as small children, never to say things we don’t mean? Why bother asking if everyone just wants to move hurriedly onwards with their lives? I’m not saying the question is insincere or shows a lack of care, but it is often something asked out of reflex and not an honest desire to wait around for the answer. To me, at least, the question only emerges when I’m fully prepared to sit down and unpack whatever angst my friend is feeling, or listen to whatever hilarious chain of encounters have come together and put them in a great mood.

What, then, is the point of asking an empty question that — at one point or another — turns us all into liars? Or, I guess more importantly, why do we feel compelled to stray away from answers that convey negative emotions? What is with the expectation to be always be “fine”? Why do we always have to smile and reassure the asker that the world is all right, that everything is great and the earth will continue orbiting the sun as it always has?

I don’t know how to pinpoint this need to be okay, but I can say that the results are far-reaching. It becomes ingrained into our brains that feeling negatively is a bad thing, a pariah emotion that should not be felt, let alone shared.

Negativity spurs isolation, it triggers a need to wallow alone when human nature should actually be pushing us toward the comfort of our loved ones. And in a world where a negative answer to a casually thrown “how are you” makes the situation uncomfortable, we are conditioned into believing that feeling badly is, well, bad.

Mash it down, ignore it, and try our damndest not to feel it becomes our natural inclination, when really, the opposite should be occurring. By institutionalizing the reflexive “how are you,” we are leading ourselves to believe that the only right answer is “I’m good.”

“Not great,” I replied with a soft laugh and a shrug — deciding, in that moment, to reveal the truth for once in that casual interaction.

The person in question stiffened next to me, slightly shifting his weight away.

“Oh?” he said, eyes shifting as he searched for something to say in response to my sudden breaking of the social norm.

“It’s okay, I’m okay,” I rushed to reassure, instantly wanting to retract my moment of honesty.

The lights in front of SSS changed from red to white. I watched the relief wash over my friend’s face as he stepped off the sidewalk.

“Well, good luck! See you later!”

Hana davis hana.davis@yale.edu