How Are You?

How Are You?

The exchange always starts out the same – someone walks past me, smiles,  and asks ‘how are you’ and my  response is almost always ‘I’m fine, and you?’   So many times the person who inquires,  barely slows to ask the question as they keep walking to their destination and rarely will even pause to reply to my polite response given in turn inquiring about them.

This exchange is repeated multiple times most every day –  it bothers me that I give the same answer over and over and know that they aren’t really asking or hearing my reply.  The question is just a habit of manners drilled into us by our mother and others when we were much younger.   Equally hard is to be honest as to how I really am – I will venture out of the norm and respond differently to the question at some times, but it still barely slows the other person down.  As much as we get along and they care about me, they really don’t want to hear how I am, day in and day out.  I don’t want to focus on my state either, especially when my health is taking wide swings of not so good days and more.

‘How are you?’ – I’m here, is one of those replies I will throw out at times when it’s a day that I could be doing better.   The people who have seen me with this crazy disease since the beginning seem to understand this response and will at least slow to issue a standard reply of something like ‘that’s good,’ before they move on.

At times, often just for variety and my own amusement, the exchange might go ‘how are you?’ to which I will say I’ve got a pulse, or I’m this side of the ground.  Both of these will normally elicit an acknowledgement that I have attempted levity in my response, but again it is rarely enough for the recipient to really stop and have a deeper exchange.

All of this brings me to the larger question – how should I respond to these inquiries?   “How are you?” is so engrained into our culture and habits, and is used almost universally in the United States.  I’m not sure about other cultures, but I guess there is a similar greeting everywhere.

A brief  response of “I’m doing good,” will often cause my coworkers to at least pause and smile because they understand the use  – I work in an English department where they know the difference between feeling well, being fine, and doing good.  I’m not sure if they think I have misused or abused the English language, but I like to think I am always doing good in all that I do; I am not always so positive that I am fine or well.

When someone asks ‘how are you,’ what am I supposed to say?  How am I supposed to be, living with MS, not knowing about the future, living on the edge, left  wondering what will happen next whether it is a change in my health or a breakthrough in treatment?

When you are asked that question – ‘how are you?’ – do you take it as an invitation to be honest and expound on your answer or do you merely do what the majority of us practice and reply ‘I’m fine and how are you?’ and keep walking.

Wishing you well,


This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


View Comments (32)
  • Adrian
    2 years ago

    ‘Still breathing’ is my stock reply to the question, this usually prompts a response of ‘that’s good’.
    From here i either smile and agree or if I’m feeling brutally honest and I know the person well i respond with ‘not today’ which usually makes the other person chuckle.

  • Tim
    4 years ago

    “Everyday above ground is a good day!”

  • cynthia
    4 years ago

    i work a retail store so i like to say “do you want the normal response or do you want the truth?” that get a good chuckle and sometimes a “just the norm please”. which is great but at least i made them laugh and think just for a second. then i move on to the can i help you fine something? or just go back to work. people tell me that they like to come to me for help because i do that. let me toot my horn now. maybe this is a good thing and it breaks away from the response that we are use to. i guess it could be taken as rude but i don’t really want to hear about how their sister’s brother’s 3rd uncle on his mom’s side had MS. but that is what i get if i tell them i have it. and they know so much about it. then they tell me of their problems. wow so i try to keep it light and just joke around with them and move on. just say’in

  • Teri
    4 years ago

    Unless it is someone close to me that I believe wants an honest answer, I have started ignoring the question and changing the conversation. No one really wants my honest response. So if we are going to pretend, I prefer to make guesses about the weather, or something that is not personal.
    I suppose some might find that rude but until you have had MS, I am not sure you know rude. I have had someone say that the last time they saw me I had a cane and now I don’t. I so wanted to say there must be something wrong with her vision. I am not normally mean or nasty.But sometimes, the assumptions and ignorance about MS become painful.
    MS provides enough pain.

  • Teri
    4 years ago

    Unless it is someone close to me that I believe wants an honest answer, I have started ignoring the question and changing the conversation. It is a pretend question for a world in rose colored glasses. No one really wants my honest response. So if we are going to pretend, I prefer to make guesses about the weather, or something that is not personal.
    I suppose some might find that rude but until you have had MS, I am not sure you know rude. I have had someone say that the last time they saw me I had a cane and now I don’t. I so wanted to say there must be something wrong with her vision. I am not normally mean or nasty.But sometimes, the assumptions and ignorance about MS become painful.
    MS provides enough pain.

  • Cathy
    5 years ago

    I have to agree with the people who are saying that the other person is just asking you to be polite. I was asked by my daughter’s father-in-law and I didn’t want to scare him with what was really going on with me, so I just said “I’m doing ok, I guess”. He nodded his head and that was the end of it. It really is the “but you look so well disease” for some with MS. I have a young face, I’m 55, just lost 38 lbs. so I’m feeling pretty good about myself, but it doesn’t change the fact that I have to use a walker at all times because I trip a lot. I fell in my bedroom the other morning because I went to grab hold of my walker and lost my balance & fell, hitting my arm off the wall. My bladder & bowels are a big problem, they don’t work. My brain does not send a signal so I better be near a toilet when it happens. It should make me a recluse, but I refuse to let it get the best of me. I go out prepared with an extra set of clothes in my car and live my life. These are things that you are not going to tell someone when they ask how you are and they don’t want to hear it anyway.

  • Candice
    5 years ago

    How am I ? Frustrated because my neurologist no longer takes Medicaid. I have been with her since 1976 I am divorced now I do not have money to buy insurance. That’s why I am on on the Medicare and Medicaid. I do not take medications other than valium for my MS. I am a paraplegic and used to be on Betaseron. Sometimes I think if you are retired have had MS for long time with out a neurologist you Might as well give up!

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    5 years ago

    Candice, that’s horrible to hear. Since you aren’t on any MS drugs, can your regular doctor take care of you in place of the neurologist? I know how attached I get to my doctors and I would hate to be shut out like this, too. Next time you are asked ‘how are you?’ I hope you can have a better answer. ~Laura

  • Lowdramamama
    5 years ago

    Like another person commented, it depends on who is asking. I will only share a major “I SUCK” with my husband. Pretty much to everyone else it’s “good” or “just fine and dandy!”

    It would scare me to ask an acquaintance how they’re doing – and then hear an answer that was negative or detailed. And of course, if it’s someone I know well – I’ll gladly listen with an empathetic ear.

    I grew up in a household where money and illness were never discussed. I was dx’d w/MS in 1985 at age 25 and NEVER TOLD ANYONE – until 2010 when I was dx’d with SPMS. The dreaded CANE was just too obvious!!! 🙂

    But truthfully, I don’t even want to hear myself talking about myself! There are SO many who are truly suffering with MS and other diseases & conditions that it just humbles me. No one knows (except God) what tomorrow holds for us – so I hold tightly to Him.

  • Marybeth
    5 years ago

    My answer for some reason always comes out “Fine, Thanks,
    How are you?” Mistake because I get a litany of that person’s aches, pains and whatever. I must admit in my mind
    I am thinking are you kidding me? Did you have to quit working, get hand controls to drive, and have a cane, walker and scooter to get around and daily injections, pills, pain and spasms? I know this sounds so negative, but really. I sympathize and say all the right things and as I walk away I have a good chuckle. I have a good friend that
    I can share my MS with and she can share her medical issues
    with me. Thank goodness.
    Laura, thanks for your thought provoking blogs. I use them to vent and they help so!!!!!!!!!!! much.

  • 5 years ago

    i really hate this question. the vast majority of people don’t really want to know, and i can either lie and say, “Fine,” or actually tell them, which neither of us wants. We need to come up with a new greeting. My usual replies are “so far, so good.” or “I’m here.” My honest answer would tend to sound like complaining or just be far more than the asker wants to know.

  • Maris
    5 years ago

    Here we have a saying that I often use: “Things shouldn’t be worse”, i.e. OK, I hope things are this “good” tomorrow. In other words, OK, whatever. Other times I just say, “the usual”. The inquisitor can take it as she/he wants ;-).

    Feel good and enjoy life,

  • Cherie
    5 years ago

    Great topic! I agree with HuskerHog. Our words are powerful! I choose to affirm “I am well!” every time I’m asked the question ‘how are you?’ whether the person asking really wants to know or not. The answer is for me. I try to see myself well.
    Sure, there are days when it doesn’t align with how I’m truly feeling. On a bad day when I can’t rise to it, I use “so glad to see you!”
    A dear friend of mine lost her husband of 26 years in a very tragic accident. This was her most dreaded question. We came up with an answer that everyone else is always ok with, but my friend could get through it without them knowing how messed up see was. “I’m FINE” to her meant “I’m f’d up, insecure, neurotic and emotional!” This works for the super bad days.
    Blessings to you all!!

  • north-star
    5 years ago

    Great article, love this response.

    I can now be “FINE” every day, right? “Fine” is my stock answer most of the time. Now I can be honest!

  • Lowdramamama
    5 years ago

    Oh I love to hear those truest of words!!! I am already f’d up, neurotic and pathetic – so if I were to lose my husband of 32 years or God forbid, a child… I’d be all those things TURBO CHARGED.

    I have a friend at church who tragically lost her 17 year old son a few years ago…and when I see her I just automatically say “It’s so good to see you” and give her a warm embrace. I don’t expect her to tell me how she’s really doing. Give me MS any ole day over that…

    But I like the “code word” thing. I love to laugh at myself – so on “those” days that really suck, I think I’ll just say something like, “Oh, I am SO STOKED!” And only my closest of closest will know the true meaning…and we’ll be cracking up in silence!

  • HuskerHog
    5 years ago

    DO be creative with your response (“above average”, or “enough about ME, how are YOU?!) DON’T be negative (everyone loses – even you, if you do). People SEE you, and you see yourself, by your words. Choose carefully. We become exactly what our own words portray us to be.

  • Red Ruth
    5 years ago

    I love this question!!
    I must agree with Tracey’s statement: “I will reply with, “Do you want me to say I’m fine, or do you really want to know?”
    I live in San Diego, Ca. now. I’m an immigrant from New York city. In the City we never said anymore than “Hi”. Why? Because if you said “Hi, how are you?” you would be told, in detail, about everything wrong in the person’s life. So we just said “Hi” unless we really wanted to hear the whole story. What a shock when I moved to Southern Calif. Everyone says “Hi, how r ya?” But not one of them really wants to know the truth. Even if you tell them the truth they aren’t listening. So I always just said “Fine, how are you?”. But one day I just had to see if they would even hear an answer, so I answered as follows:
    “Actually I’m not doing well at all. My husband just got fired from his job. Our dog got hit by a car this morning & died. Our house burt down while I was taking the dog to the Vet. Our 13 yr. old daughter is going to have a baby, we’re broke & can’t pay the bills”, etc. While I was saying these absurd comments the person who asked how I was feeling was smiling and interjecting these quick words or comments: “that’s great, wonderful, glad things are going so well & finally Let’d do lunch”. Then I realized that I had moved to a different planet.

    But to answer your question. It depends on whose asking the question. Most of the time I just answer: Fine. If it’s someone who wants an honest answer I’ll say: “Not so great today”, “It’s been better”. If they proceed to ask questions that indicate they really want to know the truth I’ll then tell them.

  • Gale L
    5 years ago

    This question and concurrent possibilities of answers is one of the reasons I don’t get out much anymore.

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    5 years ago

    Gale, getting this quick glance from others as I give them an honest reply doesn’t deter me from still engaging in this exchang I’m sorry it changes your interactions. I find your response interesting and hope you will someday share your thoughts through our stories page. ~Laura

  • Tracey
    5 years ago

    I love this newsletter! Every single topic hits home with me (duh? I have MS and I think that is the point!) I usually just read and silently nod to myself and agree. This one prompted me to reply.

    I wholeheartedly agree that it really depends on who is asking. I also agree that most people expect me to reply, “I’m fine, how are you?” That said, some days when I am feeling ornery and just the right person asks me, I will reply with, “Do you want me to say I’m fine, or do you really want to know?”

    That may seem rude to some, but as I stated before, it depends on who asks me. I only do it in good humor!


  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    5 years ago

    Tracey, I’m so glad you decided to join the conversation here. Your comment about the newsletter made me laugh, so thanks for the healthy chuckle. I hope you continue to enjoy the newsletter links and this site. ~Laura

  • Theater Geek
    5 years ago

    I usually just reply with a “Not bad.” when asked that question in passing…or even in an actual conversation. And you’re correct in thinking other countries have something similar. I know in the Spanish language when you meet someone new that isn’t a friend or family member you usually shake hands and exchange “Mucho gusto.” “Encantada.” which isn’t “How are you?” “Not bad” but still a normal exchange with people just meeting…roughly it’s “Nice to meet you.” “Nice to meet you as well.”

  • Neva
    5 years ago

    I would agree with Curious1. It depends on who is asking? I know who really wants to know and who is just being nice, and I respond accordingly. I have always felt that being honest is the right way to answer, so to the people who are just being nice, I will usually answer, “Just living one day at a time.” To the people who I know really want to know then I will tell them what is going on with me, the good and the bad.

  • oSandi
    5 years ago

    What a thought provoking article. Most times, this greeting is said just to acknowledge that you’ve seen the other person. Unless you are sitting down and there is an opportunity to actually chat, I think that it would be better just to smile and wave. I’m thinking my resolution going into 2014 will be to change my greetings to “Hi, it’s good to see you” and to respond the same way when asked “how are you”? because even though it’s asked as a question, it doesn’t really invite an answer.

  • Lamarfreed
    5 years ago

    The ritual greeting is an important social nicety. I believe it was Victor Frankl, the famous psychologist, who noted that people in concentration camps who maintained the social niceties did both psychologically and physically better than those who gave them up. So even when I’m using a cane or my trekking sticks I continue with the regional “howyadoin” routine. As noted by others, this means different things to different people. But for those who know about my MS, I may vary and use the old “pretty good for the shape I’m in” trope, or quote an unknown wit “every day above ground is a good day.” It is a pleasure when someone actually is interested in how I’m doing and important for me to remember to reciprocate given how easy it is to get wrapped up in the complexity and annoying ambiguities of this disease.

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    5 years ago

    Thanks, Lamar, for that insight. I wonder if we repeat an answer enough does it become so ingrained that it no longer affects our mental health? It feels that it takes little to no thought for me to respond ‘I’m fine, and you?’ . ~Laura

  • Sonya
    5 years ago

    Love the reply “pretty good shape for the shape I’m in”.
    My dad suffered from leukemia for 10 years before he lost his battle, & that was his standard answer. Hadn’t thought of that in quite some time.
    Thank-you for bringing a precious memory to the forefront of my mind.
    I also appreciate the reminder to reciprocate.
    Blessings to you in this New Year!

  • stukawife
    5 years ago

    Excellent topic, and frankly i’d rather people just didn’t ask. They don’t care and I really don’t need to be reminded every day, multiple times a day. My wheelchair reminds me enough.

  • Sonya
    5 years ago

    Another thought provoking article!
    I totally agree with you, it is just manners that lead people to ask this question, no one seems to be sincerely interested in how you are doing. I suppose I always pause before giving my usual standard answer of, “doing fine, and you?” & wonder if I really began my list of how I am doing, would they question this ? Would they think me a whiny person, who always has a list of ailments to talk about? After all, except for the occasional limp, I don’t look as though there is anything wrong.
    I have certainly become more aware, when I ask this question. I have learned not to be so judgemental, we never know the path someone else is walking.
    I wish a Happier, Healthier 2014 for us all.
    Look forward to seeing you here throughout the year !

  • Carrieb
    5 years ago

    Great topic. I answer according to my relationship with the person. For example, I have 3 kids with braces. I’m at the orthodontists almost every week. I’m completely honest… Especially since I have to cancel occasionally.
    Mom in law, OK or so so. Good and great if it is the case.
    Random friends, you know who really wants to hear and who doesn’t.
    Honesty is best for me. How else will anyone ever learn about MS, especially the invisible sx!
    Happy New Year all!

  • Curious1
    5 years ago

    My answer depends on who’s asking. For example if my siblings or close friends ask, they are asking how I am feeling, sometimes even posing the question in that manner. And most times I’ll vaguely answer ” I’m having some issues but am hanging in here!”. If they ask for more, I’ll inform them without complaining. But I’d never initially answer with the list of issues I’m having with the standard ‘how are you?’!!

  • Dabble58
    5 years ago

    I used to have a friend who would consistently ask me about my pain level “on a scale of 1-10”. Another asks me about my legs every conversation. I so hate that as usually I have just shut off messaging from my painful legs and am coping okay until someone directs my attention that way! Makes me impatient. So I usually don’t answer or I quiz them about their diabetes or whatever. Another took over my disease, found out all about it, started testing me and telling me what to do. Should I say these were all over 60 men??? Argh.
    I remember being told at a sales meeting that whenever anyone asked about how business was, you should answer “unbelievable!” – as that could work for either good or bad…;-)
    Now I just smile like the Mona Lisa. (have you ever noticed she has no eyebrows?)

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