So,” said the voice on the other end of the phone, “how are you doing these days?”

We all use this phrase as a placeholder — a few moments at the front of a conversation to help us gather a breath and get our mental footing. Both parties recognize it for this purpose and generally begin formulating their next set of words as the other is repeating a narrow range of socially acceptable responses.

“Fine,” I replied. “Things are good on this end. Same with you, I trust?”

And after a few neutral exchanges of well-worn phrases, both parties are off to the races to discuss the real reason one reached out to the other.

But what if we really meant it? What if this was the meaning of our call and not simply a throwaway string of words? What if we, as a society, really cared?

With my dad continuing to age, I think about this more often. His heath, although good for his age, is always one or two incidents from me having to make a decision about his future. Now when I reach out to him, those well-used words are the reason for the call and not about how his local baseball team might have fared the night before. The “how are you doing?” is now the reason for the call, not the proverbial on-ramp leading to our main conversation.

What if we practiced this with strangers? What if we were actively looking for ways to help others in need? Wouldn’t that be an act of love?

Sometimes I’ll see someone in a coffee shop staring blankly into the invisible space floating a few feet ahead. With his hands wrapped around a cup of coffee, it is as if he was playing a movie only he can see. And for most of us, it does not take a trained psychologist to spot someone in pain.

Each time I wonder, What is the best thing to do? Do I stop by and say hello or toss out a cheerful phrase to interrupt the sequence of images that person is dwelling upon? Or, does he or she just want to be left alone?

One of the most interesting aspects of aging is discovering who you really are. On the front end of our arc, most of us tend to be following a playbook of some sort — one reflecting what the larger society expects from us in whatever role we choose to play. How to dress, words to use, choices to take. We, in effect, neutralize our emotions in exchange for memorizing actions and phrases.

But with each year I find these artificial skins peeling away to reveal the real me — the one I’d probably partly suppressed or did not know enough to listen to in the first place.

So today when I strike up a conversation, I find myself increasingly interested in the first 30 seconds of dialogue. It is as if the further I move along the arc of life, the less I am interested in the useless noise of pointless conversation and instead increasingly interested in the lives of those around me.

Maybe this is a natural progression of life — one of those beautiful rewards you only discover over time. But if so, I am convinced the world would be better a better place if we didn’t have to wait so long to get there.

(2) comments

seamus
Jim Casey

These phrases like "How are you?" are conversational lubricants. When I say, "How are you?" I don't expect to hear about the person's hemorrhoids or marital troubles.

Every language that I know has such phrases.

The best way to under the function of these phrases is to run into someone who doesn't use them, who just blurts out—usually—what he or she wants you to do. It's unpleasant.

If I have an encounter with a stranger, I've taken to saying, "Isn't this a beautiful day in God's splendid creation?" This unusual greeting makes people think for a moment. It might offend atheists, but no one has complained about. It usually invokes a smile.

- Jim

Carolyn Meehan

And this atheist would reply, "Yes, indeed it is a beautiful day."

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