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Hi. How are you? A standard greeting. We utter it daily, many times over. A great social invitation, right? Well, it ought to be. Reality is a lot more complex.

How are you? This simple question creates instant social dilemmas. Judith Jamison, one of the all-time great American dancers and for many years the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, has a strong opinion about this question:

One thing I cannot stand is when people say ‘Hi, how are you?’ and they don’t wait to hear how I am. They’re just going through the motions. I say to people: ‘Keep it human. Keep it alive. Don’t turn into a robot.’ (NY Times, Business Section, 11/29/2009)

Dan Oropesa is the co-owner of Mack Planet, a popular networking business in Ft. Lauderdale. Dan shares a greeting pet peeve with me.

I was at a function the other night and asked this fellow how he was doing. ‘I’m really tired,’ he said. And I thought to myself, how am I supposed to respond? This very moment, I don’t really want to hear about how tired you are. Don’t drag me down.

Yes, tired may be true, but why the heck did you come to a networking event? Stay home. Saying I’m fine when I’m not fine may feel inauthentic. Perpetual “I’m finers” are chronically inauthentic. Claiming my tiredness, however, could indeed be a social drag. The dilemmas of the How are you? moment.

If you are familiar with Ken Blanchard’s model of Situational Leadership, you know the basic premise – different situations require different types of leadership. The contextual variables we juggle in a greeting? The amount of time available. The desire for intimacy. And here’s how these variables play out:

  1. Little time/little intimacy:
    One word will do. If you feel tired, I suggest avoiding tired. How about busy? You may be tired because you’ve been so busy. So – your answer is still authentic and, at the same time, socially helpful.
  1. More time/little intimacy:
    Offer a little more information. Wow, it’s been an amazingly busy day. You’re offering the positive take. Still authentic. If you’re talking to Judith Jamison, you know she’ll follow up. That’s when you volunteer the less pretty details.
  1. Little time/more intimacy:
    We’re talking to a trusted friend or cherished colleague now. Wow, it’s been a truly exhausting day. Still short and sweet, but we “own” our tiredness. The other person’s response will determine the depth of our further telling.
  1. More time/more intimacy:
    Here’s when we can fully “show up” and tell the story. Wow, it’s been one heck of a day. And then we offer an example or two. Hint: Even in a close collegial relationship, don’t unload everything right away. Choose to not overburden a simple social moment. Allow for further inquiry by your colleague. If the moment warrants more detail, your colleague will let you know.

How are you? The words we choose in response define the entire quality of the conversation that ensues. Get your contextual-greeting-variables right. Answer consciously. Better conversations will unfold. Guaranteed.