Reasons why you should answer the question, “How are you?” differently


Originally posted on the Ziksana Consulting blog.

By: Kevin Smoker

One cultural nuance of the United States office building is some form of the question; how are you?  This phrase and cycle has woven its way into the fabric of nearly every conversation throughout the business world.

The cycle goes like this:

Coworker 1: “How are you?”

Coworker 2 picks one of the following words – good, okay, busy or tired, then says:  “(Good/okay/busy/or tired) how about you?”

Both individuals then walk away without even listening to response.

To be blunt, this is perhaps the most depressing cycle possible. So how can and why should it be improved?

  1. New answers offer you the opportunity to reinforce your own positive energy- Each time we mindlessly answer the question “Hi, how are you?” with a neutral or, even worse, negative response, it’s a subtle reminder to ourselves that reinforces the feeling. Instead, make it playful.  Make it positive.  And make it heartfelt.  After repeating it 50 times a day the feeling will be reinforced.  Try saying ‘incredible’ or ‘goofy’ or ‘jolly’, then watch what others say while experiencing the feeling grow.
  2. Each positive and playful response has an impact on others-Energy is conductive, and positive energy in a team goes a long way towards fostering a creative and dynamic environment. As noted by Vivan Giang of Fast Company in his excellent article “How Smiling Changes Your Brain”, the simple act of smiling has a profound impact on team members.  This doesn’t discount the impact that verbal cues have on a culture, and, just as smiling is a clue to your brain, so too is the process of saying ‘fantastic’ or ‘excellent’.  Watching the energy infused into a crowd at a sporting event is a wonder to behold, and the same can be said for teams in an office.  A leader who states she is fantastic, excellent, or excited for today’s meeting can spread positivity throughout the entire team.
  3. Start small to change a culture- Want innovation and changes on your team? Start with little day-to-day cycles. Making big changes is tough, especially when maintaining the status quo in most other office dynamics.  Changing human behavior and cycles is one of the hardest things to do. But thankfully the “How are you” cycle can be modified in just days.
  4. Show, don’t tell, someone they matter – Stop, ask “Why?” And listen. Physically stopping to listen and engage others is a statement of respect, courtesy and acknowledgement of another’s experience.  Engaging and empathizing brings a level of understanding and background to better understand how someone is feeling.  In a consistent state of urgency, stopping briefly to acknowledge another is an incredibly powerful gesture.  Especially as a leader, ask follow up questions and spend just 1 or 2 minutes learning what’s going on before continuing your day.  The time spent to acknowledge is a powerful statement to your team that others matter and their feelings are important. This brief act helps to bring a level of human respect to the team.

Breaking the cycles of a culture helps you, helps your team, and helps your company. Remembering that how we respond to simple questions can have profound impacts on the happiness and productivity of ourselves and others should encourage all of us to pass on positivity and playfulness.

Kevin Smoker is an Associate Director at Thermo Fisher Scientific helping make the world healthier, cleaner and safer. He also serves as CFO for Peak Rescue Institute and seeks challenges of all types be it professional, outdoor, or culinary. Connect with Kevin on Twitter @KevinSmoker or Linkedin.