Most of us ask one go-to question when we exchange pleasantries with friends, coworkers, and peers:
“How are you?”
The question may seem harmless, but it tends to lead to one socially acceptable answer:
The problem is that “I’m fine” often is not the truth. And if you ask this question of someone who is dealing with a lot in their personal life, it may come across as insensitive.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg often felt this way when friends would ask her “How are you?” after the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, in 2015.
“After my husband died, I found the standard American greeting of ‘How are you?’ to be a really hard question to answer,” Sandberg told Business Insider in an interview about her new book about grief, “Option B.”
“The response to the standard American greeting of ‘How are you?’ is ‘I’m great,’ and anything else is jarring,” she said. “When people are really suffering and we know they’re suffering, that question can be a very difficult one. Inadvertently, I think without anyone meaning it, it communicates a lack of empathy.”
Instead, Sandberg recommends adjusting the question slightly: “How are you today?”
She says the slightly altered question implies: “I get it. You are going through something hard, and you are living day to day.”
“And it’s a much kinder question,” she said.
She says everyone grieves differently and that she often made the mistake of asking “How are you?” before her husband’s death.