American social habits are confusing sometimes. We ask people how they are but don't want to hear the truth. We expect a pleasant, predictable answer of three words or less. “Fine, thanks,” usually does it. If we actually try telling the person how we feel, their eyes glaze over or wander off to somebody else and we find we are basically talking to ourselves because no one is actually listening. You can usually tell, by their response, that they're not interested because they'll say something totally unrelated. You tell them that you're tired, suffering from allergies or have an ingrown toenail and they smile and say, “That's nice, I'm glad to hear it.” I know this to be true because I've experimented with this phenomenon and found that about 65 percent of the time the other person is not paying one bit of attention to my reply. In fact, if my answer is more than a half dozen words, I am very likely to be interrupted by an account of how they feel – as if I'd asked!
“How are you?” is probably the number one most insincere question in the English language. We say it to close friends and total strangers, we hear it from check-out girls, gas station attendants and telephone solicitors who have no reason to care. And nobody who asks has the slightest interest in getting a truthful answer.
There are a number of similar phrases commonly used in the course of a day's activities and, for the most part, they are so pointless that we tend to ignore them, treating them like background music that we are barely aware of. We arrive at a friend's front door and, as we are invited in, they ask, “How was your trip?” Before you can tell them about the traffic jam or the blinding downpour, they are urging you toward the kitchen for a glass of iced tea or shouting at the dog to quit sniffing you in embarrassing places.
“How was your vacation?” is the Nobel prize-winner of risky questions and people ask it only because it is expected of them, though everyone dreads having to listen to the answer. There is no such thing as a brief account of any vacation that lasted more than two hours. Every tourist attraction, souvenir shop, road construction detour and historical monument must be included as if to validate the purpose of that particular vacation. Apparently, just relaxing and having fun don't belong in the superior quality vacation. And there's always the risk of audio-visual enhancement in the form of snapshots, videos or cell phone pictures.
“Have a nice day,” has long set my teeth on edge because very few people mean it and there's no sensible reply except, maybe, to mutter something inane like, “You, too.” That used to be fairly standard at the supermarket checkout but has recently been replaced by, “Did you find everything?” I nearly always assure them that I did, indeed, locate everything on my list, even though the people who stock the shelves seem dedicated to hiding essentials about time I've become confident of their locations. That is one question I urge you to consider carefully before answering. Just often enough, some helpful courtesy boy – or girl – will rush off in search of something you mention that you couldn't find. The checkout lane is not the place for this question to be asked or answered. You should track down one of those helpful persons who loiter in the aisles, and do it at the time you discover the item is not in its habitual place, or you will find yourself stranded at the register, waiting for the item to be located and brought to you so that you can learn your total and finish writing that check.
It's bad enough to have to cool your heels while the courtesy guy checks seven possible locations and finally consults the manager to see if the item is still in stock. (I advise you to answer in a way that implies you don't actually want the product – you just wondered where they hid it this week.) The really annoying part of this little ritual is that you are holding up the checkout line. The person behind you is becoming more and more impatient and has started to hate you for being so particular and demanding. That person invariably has a problem – it might be a whiny child grabbing things off the candy shelf, or it might the car running while he dashed in for two quick items, or she's running late to pick up the kids at soccer practice, or should have taken time to go to the bathroom before setting out on a quick trip to the store.
Whatever the reason, it's all your fault because you should never have answered that question that nobody expected an answer to in the first place.