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Illustration by Maya Chastain

Several years ago, at my wife’s sister’s wedding in Altoona, Pennsylvania, I was approached by a woman who gave me the heat of her full attention. Despite summoning all my body’s energy in an attempt to make myself invisible against the photo booth props table, her eyes had locked on me. I grabbed a feathered mask on a stick, holding it in my sweaty palm, hoping it would transform me into just another casual wedding guest but…

The woman, my sister-in-law’s brand new mother-in-law, bundled my hands, mask stick and all, in hers, looked into my eyes and said in complete sincerity, “…You have such a warm aura.”

That was my first time talking to her and I haven’t spoken to that lady since. I think about our exchange at least once a year though, and it popped in my mind again recently when a now-deleted meme started circulating on Twitter, suggesting alternates for the question “how are you?”

The original art is drawn by Keeley Shaw, who credits herself as a Self-Awareness Advocate in her Instagram bio. The caption for the original posting of the illustration-turned-meme on Instagram states Shaw’s reasoning behind her creative alternatives.

“‘How are you?’ has always been an overwhelming question for me, one I usually don’t know the answer to… or it’s too abstract to answer… like how am I how?” Shaw says in the caption.

“I usually default to ‘I’m alive’… because that’s the only thing that feels true… especially in the past few months… this question has been floating around so much… and it feels heavier each time it’s asked. I wonder how much we have kept inside when we answer “how are you?” talking to a friend on the phone… a neighbor on a walk… our families… Maybe we can check in on our people a little more intentionally… dig a little deeper, and practice vulnerability a bit more often.”

Admittedly, the “our people” distinction got lost when the image spread on Twitter but the (somewhat fun) vitriol to “how are you?” isn’t new. However, without context, Shaw’s offered alternates do feel like permission for the checker at Trader Joe’s to dive beneath the surface of your well-being while ringing you up.

Do we really need strangers and mild acquaintances asking, “what lies do you find yourself believing?” or “how can I support you?” or “what color is your heart today?” which comes with the follow up question … “why?” Sure, it might be nice when “our people” do it (and they very well should), but “our people” or not, these suggestions were met with mixed feelings, both on the original Instagram post and without-context on Twitter.

While an afternoon spent going through these wouldn’t be a wasted one, most of them can be boiled down to the paraphrased “please don’t stress me out by asking me something wild like what color is my heart today. How are you is just fine, thanks.”

A little-known fact about New Orleans is that locals can pick out tourists and recent transplants from a mile away because they don’t greet every person they pass. Although here, rather than “how are you?” most people greet passersby with “how’s it going?” Or “you good?”

That last question, “you good?” can mean anything from “hello” to “you seem to be having some manner of issue, is there going to be a problem here?”

Regardless of the different meanings behind the simple question, the answer is usually the same… “I’m good.” Or no response at all beyond a smile and a nod. Just like “how are you?” it’s a way to acknowledge the person, or group of people, near you, and keep it moving.

Sure Shaw might be onto something by wondering how much we leave inside when we’re asked “how are you?” — or here’s a thought: Maybe, we’re actually supposed to leave some stuff inside.

If you thought it was a bit odd for someone I’ve never spoken to before to forgo “hi” for “you have such a warm aura,” then you probably know the difference between “how are you?” the nicety, and “how are you?” the question, which is a bit of difference. And it all depends on if a stranger or someone you know, even a little bit, is asking.

When a stranger asks, “how are you?” they’re gonna get “fine, thanks, and you?” as a response from me. It doesn’t require any sort of answer aside from that. In fact, it’s safe to say that, for most who ask it, a lengthy answer is not even all that welcome. But if my wife asks me, she’ll probably get an earful about my cramps or something.

“How are you” is flexible. Being asked “what color is your heart today” demands an answer. And no matter who asks, a question like that couldn’t be answered with “fine.” Most likely, the most common answer to that specific question would be… “what?”

“We’re all coping. How well we cope differs depending on our privileges and resources that we have access to,” says Melody Li, a therapist of color and mental health justice activist. “I can see how a once generic or innocent question like ‘how are you?’ can land rather empty. After all, many of us are running on empty!”

Li has also created Inclusive Therapists, a social justice-oriented mental health directory and community that centers the needs of marginalized communities. To her, this whole “how are you” debate depends on the context and emphasis.

For example, a text “how are you?” versus in-person “how are you?”

“The impact of that question has changed when we as a society shifted from in-person, to voice, to text-based communication,” Li says.

“In the past, one would be able to see a person’s physical expression, body language, and hear the tone of voice of that question. When it’s asked in a nonchalant way, one would usually respond in a nonchalant manner. However, now that much of our communication is via text, it’s difficult to hear the tone or emphasis.” The emphasis can be on any of the three words: HOW are you vs. How ARE you vs. How are YOU.

What Li helps to make clear here is that while, yes, “how are you” is mostly used as a throwaway question, there are some instances where the asker really wants to know, or the person being asked may desperately need to *be* asked. It’s important to take in the context to determine what level of conversation can comfortably take place at that moment.

“Staying in community and being connected with loved ones is what will help us move through this crisis,” Li says. “Rather than piece apart or criticize HOW folx are checking in, I invite people to consider it as an opportunity for connection.”

Li’s 3 tips for answering how are you:

  1. If you want to connect deeper with this person, say so! “[Ask] are you able to hold space for me as I share?”
  2. If you don’t, It’s perfectly ok to say “OK” and move on.
  3. If you want to connect deeper, just not at the moment, ask for more time. Say, “I have to think about that. Is it OK if I come back to you when I’m ready to talk about it?”

“Of course, we can all learn to be more attuned. If a simple ‘how are you’ is not landing, that might be a good time to imagine that person’s world and consider the areas that they may need more care and attention right now. Try showing care to those areas more and see what happens!” says Li. The most important part is that you’re checking in, not that you’re doing it perfectly.

When I’m not writing articles like this, I work as a publicist. Often I’ll come across situations where a band isn’t too excited to have received a review or single share by a smaller site. Everyone wants the “biggest” thing. The “perfect” thing. In these instances, I often tell them “like the people who like you.” And I feel like that’s something that could apply here. Regardless of how flowery and generous someone’s phrasing, time, and patience is — or isn’t — with their “how are you” approach… it’s nice to be asked.

We may not be ready for a “what color is your heart” journey, but it’s nice when someone, anyone, cares.

Kelly McClure is a writer who has written for NY Magazine, GQ, The Hairpin, Rolling Stone, and more. Find more of her work here.