I was out today, and as always when out and about you endlessly get asked, “how are you doing?” by every Tom, Dick or Sally who stands behind some sales counter awaiting the release that only a Friday afternoon’s closing can offer.

Like most, I usually give a “fine, thanks. And you?” response.  But lately I’ve taken to replying, “I’m well – within reason.”  Because reason must always be considered, yes?  It could just as well be, “I’ve been considering bunion surgery and feel a bit gassy”.  Then what?

But to most people the ‘how’re you doin?’ inquiry is met with something along the arc of “fine, thanks” to “great, thanks”.  And really, what is that but a verbal stiff-arm to the equally off-handed inquiry?

I recall a European runner friend visiting America for the first time being approached by the greeter at some box store we entered.

“Good morning, how are you doing?” asked the greeter with all the pleasantness of a lowing cow.

My friend pulled back staring in befuddlement even as the greeter turned and continued with the litany of “how are you doings” to other customers.

“Was that person talking to me?” my friend inquired.

I explained that this faux geniality was an American shopping tradition not unlike unreasonable markups and nasty return policies.  She remained dumbfounded.

“But that person doesn’t know me.  Why would a stranger approach me like that when it takes years of acquaintance to reach such a rapport?”

“You can’t take it personally.  She didn’t mean it personally.  She says it to everyone.  It’s purely rhetorical.”

“So not only is it an intrusion, but it is also a false one?”

“If you like.  But you can’t attach sincerity to that.  It’s off-hand, company policy, perfunctory, at best.”

“You Americans,” she said shaking her head with a chuckle as we threaded our way to the supplement supply aisle.

But having travelled widely, I can attest that America is the home of fake friendships and false geniality.  Other, more hidebound societies have much more rigid social frameworks.  America, still a relatively new country and home to so many immigrants fleeing from just such constricted pasts, fancies itself as a friendly nation – though the friendship, as my European friend discovered, is often no more than skin-deep.  But where people generally ask such pointless, I-honestly- don’t-mean-it questions is at stores, airplane entrances and the like.  So would a reply like, “I’m doing great” truly be expected or desired?

“Really? You’re doing great at the Macy’s Semi-Annual sale on Friday afternoon? I had no idea we were achieving that level of success.   I’ll be sure to tell the higher-ups.  I’m sure they’ll be pleased. I wouldn’t think people would actually be peaking here.  And, of course, once you have already achieved a state of “Great”, there’s nowhere to go but down.  So, in that sense, I’m sorry you’ve made it that far up toward the sublime at this location.  Seems like a waste.  But maybe you have more gears on your emotional derailleur than I do.”

Unfortunately, the sale produced nothing beyond the above observation. And so it goes. La dee da, la dee da.  Enjoy the weekend – well, within reason.


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