'How are you doing?': Why I hate being asked this


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 20 May 2021, 4:52 PM

I was bingeing on a web series the other day. One of the protagonists tells another: “People don’t really care about you, they pretend they do but then they go back to debating what to watch on television.” As is the occupational hazard of bingeing, I have, by now, forgotten the context totally. And I’m not even sure if it’s the exact same quote, verbatim: I tried to do an IMDb search on Google, putting in the serial’s name + best lines and drew a blank — but I remember that was pretty much the spirit of the content, the sum and substance of it.

It got me thinking about the rhetorical question being tossed around these days, like giving away candies at a fair. “Are you alright?” At times, rephrased as: “Hope you are doing okay?” or “Trust things are fine with you?”

Hope and trust have become casualties in Covid age, they can’t be taken for granted any more. So, the answer to the rhetorical question is, “No, not really.” But I don’t say that, and instead parrot something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m okay, thanks.” At times, I push my luck and say, “I’m mostly okay”, and immediately regret it when I’m dutifully countered with, “Why? Why are you only ‘mostly’ okay?”

This time, I want to ask, “Do you honestly care — or are you on autopilot?”

Again, I stop myself and deflect with an inane explanation. “Because it’s so stressful, the situation in India, it’s getting to me.” Just the way you are getting to me. Subtext.

I also get irritated when seemingly well-intentioned people exclaim, “Aren’t you glad you are not in India right now? You are way safer here.” How myopic can you get? I don’t articulate that obviously, so I just say, “Well, yes, I guess, but I also feel more helpless because I’m away from home — and if something happens to anyone I know back in India, I won’t be able to do anything… other than work the phone or stare glassily at WhatsApp alerts.”

Covid has played games with our minds. Other than becoming withdrawn, I’ve become more intolerant of protocol questions. “Do you think we are turning into sociopaths?” a like-minded friend asked me the other day. “I too am having a problem dealing with peer-to-peer concern, it all seems so contrived.”

“Not exactly a sociopath,” I piped up. “That serial killer guy in The Fall was a sociopath, we only get ticked off — and then we internalise it since we are too chicken to scream ‘Shut up’.”

During the first wave, when I was in Delhi, locked in most of the time, I used to cringe each time I saw my WhatsApp notifications light flashing. More often than not, it would be a “Hey, are you doing okay? Everyone around you okay?”

I had actually prepared a line with all correct punctuation marks and no SMS lingo-type spellings that read: “Yes, so far so good. And you?” I would copy paste it. Serially. To almost every query I received.

If I’m not doing okay, or if people I know are not doing okay, what will you do, I wanted to ask but obviously that would be in bad form.

And yet, weirdly, if someone wasn’t “asking” around, I’d be a little upset at their callousness. Why hasn’t so-and-so not been in touch for more than three weeks? Does it mean they don’t care?

When they popped up after a month-long break — asking the same “Hey, are you alright?” question — I’d be back to feeling exasperated.

Covid’s second wave has aggravated both my insularity and my mawkishness. Damned if they do ask; and damned if they don’t.

I had a conversation with a pal about the perceived warm-heartedness of “contacts” asking after you. She said she was touched when someone she barely knows inquired about her family’s welfare in India. “But that’s easy, right?” I wanted to know. “They are words. Would anyone make an effort, go out of the way?”

“In the age of WhatsApp and social media, nobody has to go out of the way, or spend money,” she explained in her own inexplicable way. “There are free calls and messaging systems, and contacts that are saved in your online eco-system, you need to simply tell Siri or Google Assistant to dig them out. So yes, it’s not much of an effort but it’s the thought that counts. Be grateful.”

I’m still trying to make sense of that, it’s a pickle.


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