How are you?

“How are you?” is a terrible question. For most, it’s useless; a waste of words. In my opinion, it’s detrimental to creating authentic relationships and a caring society. So, why do people ask this question? Is it because they don’t know how to start conversations? Is it because they are too lazy or too entrenched in social media that they aren’t willing to dig deeper than the surface questions?

Particularly in the United States, people ask this inane question as a polite platitude. The person asking isn’t seeking to know how the other person is doing. They aren’t actively listening to the response. Instead, they are thinking about what they want to discuss. The person being asked the question is content to respond with the same banality. They don’t divulge the whole truth, rarely elaborate, and often respond with “I’m fine.” They show their facade. The entire discourse illustrates how society does not capitalize on the opportunity to know individuals, to cultivate authentic relationships, or to create an empathetic society.

In other cultures, they ask this question but seek to know the answer. If someone asks “how are you?” and the response is “I’m fine”, they don’t let it pass. They inquire further: “what is making you fine?”. In these cultures, they know the importance of the question. The inquisitor looks intently at the person, they lean forward, and they ask open-ended, follow-up questions. They demonstrate their genuine interest in how a person is doing. In return, the responses are authentic. This results in meaningful conversation, authentic relationships, and caring societies.

Similar to this typical, social-setting, conversation-starter, recruiters use their own version of a useless question: “Tell me about yourself” or “Walk me through your resume” to begin most interviews. The interviewer is often not listening to the answer. They are looking at the candidate’s resume or determining their next question so they can complete a rubric. The interviewee uses the opportunity to regurgitate their over-rehearsed response. Their monologue is based on what they presume should be said or what they think the potential employer wants to hear.

This seemingly benign interview practice is a malignant cancer eroding the fabric of professional relationships; the ones between colleagues and the ones between the company and their talent. By asking these generic questions, the interviewer sends a message that they don’t care about the candidate; that they don’t really want to know the person. These homogeneous interview questions don’t allow the respondent to be authentic or divulge who they really are; they are stating what they believe necessary to get the job. In turn, the interviewer loses the opportunity to know a person and what makes them interesting. They miss insights into whether that person would enhance the organization.

If we want a society that values each person, we need to change our daily interactions. We must adjust our conversations to dig deep into what makes another person tick, what matters to them, what makes them unique. If we want to create communities of inclusion, we first must create conversations where we ask personalized, open-ended questions and then actively listen to each other. We must ask insightful follow-up questions and encourage an open dialogue. If we want company cultures that are truly diverse and inclusive, the interview process can’t ask superficial questions. Companies need to allow interviewers the latitude to create an inviting environment and delve into knowing each other. An authentic, professional culture of diversity starts with meaningful dialogue in the interview.

Creating a society, a community, and a company culture based on openness, vulnerability, and in-depth understanding is hard. Not everyone is comfortable asking open-ended questions or asking questions that society deems ‘out in left field’. Many firms are not comfortable allowing each interviewer to delve deep to get to know someone but instead provide rubrics that don’t allow for thinking outside the box. Each of us has a part to play. Each person must put in the effort. Everyone is responsible for creating meaningful conversations; for generating impactful dialogue.

So, if someone asks you “How are you?”, don’t respond with “I’m fine”. Instead, say: “I’m a ray of sunshine on a rainy day”, “I feel like a deer in headlights” or “I’m drinking from a firehose”. This will not only give the person pause but also insight into how you feel. It will tell them that you feel positive even though things are tough. It tells them that you feel paralyzed and unable to move forward. It tells them you feel overwhelmed. Your authentic response creates the opportunity for dialogue and real conversation. Your response invites them to get to know you.

I speak with college students about how to best respond to the “Tell me about yourself” interview question. I spend hours helping students craft their story. Although I encourage them to be authentic and vulnerable, I know they often are unable to respond that way during the stress of an interview. I dream about the day when interviewers stop asking the generic conversation starter and seek to know the individual. I wish for companies to pursue the individual rather than the ‘mold’ of the person they believe they should hire. I wish more employers would ask questions that get to know the individual; questions like “what makes you tick?”, “what are your interests?”, “what are you truly passionate about?” or “what would your obituary say about you?”.

The responses, in turn, need to be honest, vulnerable and authentic. Too many candidates feel they must manipulate the interview. In today’s recruiting environment, candidates fear being authentic and vulnerable. Although they want to be themselves and work for companies that value their individuality, the recruiting process has shown that it doesn’t pay to be yourself. Too many companies are looking for the answer that makes the candidate a ‘fit’ rather than seeking answers that illuminate the whole person.

The interview process can change but it starts with creating relationships, communities, and a society where conversations aren’t generic questions with ignored responses. We must each do our part. We must all take a first step — ask insightful, probing, open-ended questions and then actively listen. Don’t allow others to give the “I’m fine” response. Dig deeper. Double click and find out more. Take a genuine interest in how they are, what’s going on in their life, and what interests them. In return, you’ll find what makes them interesting.

Each of us must be comfortable providing candid responses. We must be vulnerable and forthright. That can be scary. However, if we want a world where each person feels empowered to be their authentic selves, we each must take a step outside our comfort zone. If we sincerely want actualized inclusion in our varied communities, multi-faceted societies, and diverse workplaces, it starts with meaningful conversation.

Advisor & Strategist for, Founder, Alvista Loop Consulting, startup investor, and director of Business and Finance program

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Stephanie Hockman

Stephanie Hockman

Advisor & Strategist for, Founder, Alvista Loop Consulting, startup investor, and director of Business and Finance program

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