“How are you?” has mostly been a throw away question. People, particularly Americans, often ask it without expecting a meaningful answer. And people usually answer with a platitude because they know the questioner is not seeking an actual answer.
Now that we are in a worldwide crisis, this throw away question may have gained renewed importance. People need to know when other people really care about them, and are willing to help them. Maybe, under these difficult circumstances, people will just start giving a complete and honest answer. So be ready the next time you ask “How are you?” because your friend might say: “I’m worried that my mother is going to run out of insulin.”
If you get the usual “fine” as the answer, it might be good to convey that you really do want to know about them and their situation. You could offer something about yourself to prime the conversation. You may be worried about your sister, who is stuck on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and no country will let them dock. Or you may have a son that thinks he is impervious to the virus. Sharing your story and anxieties might help get the conversation started. If not, just knowing they are not alone in their fears may be more helpful than you will ever know.
Depending on how well you are acquainted, you could signal your sincere concern by asking: “Is your family safe?” or “Do you have the supplies you need?”. If they are not technical, you could help them understand how Teams or Zoom works. If they are feeling trapped at home or overwhelmed by the TV, you could tell them about your favorite book or show them how the Metropolitan Opera is streaming on the web.
Whether you are 19 or 91, you know these are extreme times. While under the stress of these conditions, it will take focus and energy to be our best selves and care for our families, our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, and maybe even people we have never met before.