SETTING: Fly Creek General Store. CAST: Assorted seated geezers, drinking coffee. [Door opens, enter heavy-set geezer; walking slowly with wide stance, maybe prostatitis.]
SEATED GEEZER: “Hey, buddy, How’ya doin’?”
ENTRANT: “Just great. How ‘bout you?”
SEATED GEEZER: “Just fine, too.” [Pause, tone flattens.] “I’m lyin’. How ‘bout you?”
ENTRANT [laughing]: “Damn right!” [Guffaws all around.]
Eureka! Truth, slicing right through social niceties (as far as they exist among geezers), and driving home to blunt reality.
Most human encounters open with what linguists call, “social lubrication”: short exchanges that really don’t carry specific meaning, butmerely express good will. Hence our saying, “Hello, stranger!” or “How’ya doin?’” or “Good to see you!” or “How’s the family?”
Excuse the comparison, but all that’s a bit like dogs who greet one another with the sniffing ritual. (No need to describe it.) With it, dogs say, “I’m OK with you, you’re OK with me. Nobody’s going to fight.”
Our social lubrication carries the same usefulness.
It establishes camaraderie, especially if we slip in a compliment: “How come you never age, buddy?” Or, “Honey, you’re more beautiful every time I see you!” Or, “Hey, how much weight have you lost? You look great!”
Sniff, sniff. Wag, wag. OK, let’s visit.
But what happens when someone opens with “How’ya doin’?” and you’re not doing well at all? Does the questioner want an honest answer, or just sniff, sniff, wag, wag? And do you want to give an honest answer?
The classic Greeks weighed the problem and suggest your response depends on the kind of friendship you have with the other person. Aristotle says there are three distinct kinds.
First, there’s friendship of mere civility, the one where conversation openers really just grease the wheels of social interaction. You have civil friendships with fellow workers, business clients, professional patients, customers, members of your church or club. These are useful, productive relationships, even if sometimes they are with people you don’t much like.
When you say, “Good to see you!” or “How are you?” to a civil friend, you don’t expect a response of any more depth than your greeting has. “Good to see you!” Wag, wag.
Another category, says Aristotle, is friendship of pleasure. Here your interest in the other is based in your hoping for amusement, for entertainment. When you say, “How are you?” to such a person, you’re almost hoping for a witty response. Such people enrich our lives with their talents and their wit, and we’ll cross the street to visit with them. “Hey!” we say. What’s new?” Wag, wag.
But then, says Aristotle, comes the only category that can be called true friendship. That’s friendship based in mutual respect which, almost always, follows on deeply shared values.
Interestingly, with such friends, even if they haven’t seen one another in years, there’s no need for social lubrication, no need for sniffing and wagging.
When two people share such a friendship, it exists above the limits of time and distance. It is an enduring bond, and seeing one another after an absence brings real joy.
Blessed is the marriage of the couple who are, not only in love, but who are friends, sharing the bonds or shared values and mutual respect. They’re in for a long run together.
But don’t bet money if the weaker kinds of friendship dominate. “Do you know how rich his dad is?” Or “She is right at home with the country- club set, the real movers and shakers.” Or, “I know he drinks too much, but he really makes me laugh!” Or, “And she comes with a Lexus and with a trust fund!”
My advice: Don’t spend too much on the wedding gift.
And blessed are you if you have at lease a few real friends in your life. You’ll have plenty of the rest, and good for you! But treasure the real ones, the friends of mutual respect. In a long and friendship-filled lifetime, I’ve been blessed with only about eight.
And so back to the earlier question: You been asked, “How are you doing?” and, in fact, you’re not doing well. With Aristotle standing at your shoulder, you’ll quickly consider how close a friend you are to the questioner.
And you’ll realize that, if you answer, “Well, truthfully, things are pretty bad,” you’ll be able to spot an immediate reaction.
First, you’ll see a hint of panic in their eyes. (Oh, God, I don’t want to hear a sob story!”) This will be followed by a verbal soft-shoe: “Well sorry about that! Hope things get better!” Then, off to happier topics.
And so, if your relationship is simply a casual civil one, one without depth, you’ll give a perfunctory answer. That’s all the questioner wants, anyway.
If the “How are you doing?’ is asked someone who you simply enjoy, especially one who approached with a big grin or, worse, a knitted-brow, sympathetic expression freshly just pasted on, then a token response is again apt. But when a true friend asks the question, one who’s spirit is already bonded to yours in mutual respect, that’s when you’re ready to open your heart. And should.