HI, how are you, we say cheerily to people we meet. It is a courteous question, one of those things that trips off the lips without a second thought. But hang on a minute: we don’t expect an answer, not a proper answer, anyway.
At least, nothing more than an equally cheery ‘Fine, thanks – and you?’ To which I will chirp: ‘Yes, all fine. Have a great Christmas. Bye!’
Why is it, then, that more and more nowadays this simple ‘How are you?’ question, which really is more of a greeting than a bona fide enquiry, elicits an answer that, far from any kind of reassurance that all is well, actually amounts to a list of ailments, a veritable organ recital. I have a nasty feeling that it’s something that comes with that awful thing called Age.
Oh please stop, I want to say, but I button my lip and suppress unkind thoughts. I struggle not to blurt out: ‘Now look here, I was just being polite, that’s all. Standing here in the cold listening to how your body is disintegrating at a rate of knots is really not what I want to hear right now. I’m busy. In fact I’m rushing, can’t you see? Isn’t my body language, polite concern mixed with a desperate desire to take flight, telling you something?’
On and on they go . . . ‘and I’d just got over that and then my knee went’. Went where, I wonder, and I speculate whether it took a bus or just ran. Oh, it went in that way, in a sort of giving-up-the-ghost collapsing way. I see. Oooh, how awful, I wince, sympathy etched across my brow. I have now exhausted my repertoire of facial contortions to indicate how much I feel for, indeed share, this poor woman’s discomfort. Recovery from 10 days of flu, a husband down with a mystery virus, and now an absent knee. What a Christmas that household’s going to have.
I back away, silently whimpering while making over-the-top assurances that things will undoubtedly soon take a turn for the better.
I reach home to find, among that day’s shoal of Christmas cards on the doormat, the annual festive letter from friends in London. Usually, they tell us of the rip-roaring fun and frolics they both have with their drama group and, in Judy’s case, with the choir that is obviously balm to her soul. Not this year. Anno domini has brought them challenges in the health department, which, unbelievably, Judy chooses to share in the greatest detail.
Here’s a list of the ailments she and her relatively new husband, a man we’ve never met, have contended with through 2014: heart disease, high blood pressure, undiagnosed (though not for want of numerous tests) gastro-intestinal pain, cataracts, serious foot problems, ongoing tests for prostate cancer and a disabling dose of osteo-arthritis. At least they have lived to tell the tale: their cat died, they tell us, though we are not given the cause of its demise, so they missed a trick there in the ‘let’s spread gloom’ category.
As Christmas letters go, it is a definite winner. But at least it’s only a letter. Imagine if I’d encountered them in the street and made the mistake of saying ‘Hi, how are you?’ I’d still be there next week, nodding and smiling and wondering when I can politely hit reverse and escape.