Just Checking In
“Good, Thanks How are You” is a habit I’m trying to shake. In overuse, I’ve reduced the saying from response to reflex, and in the past couple of months I’ve come to realize just how little I mean the words when I say them—even when I am “fine” or “ok” or “good.” But, if I’m being honest with myself, I’ve never really been comfortable saying more. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why that might be—about why I, why we, in the interactions that might enable us to separate the good days from the bad, are so incapable of small honesties. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why we, when it comes to emotional check-ins, find comfort in the artificial, both as the one posing the question and the one delivering the response.
In mid-October, when a friend told me he had decided to transfer from Tufts in the spring semester, I was thrown completely off-guard. The way he explained it to me, with a meticulously crafted plan and a failsafe timeline, was not the way I would have expected to be told. What I was presented with was the thoughtful decision of someone who had found relief from what appeared to be a long period of isolation, rather than the loosely outlined hypotheticals of someone who was acting in a panicked haste. It wasn’t his decision to leave that struck me as much as it was the amount of care and time and sheer pain that had to have been behind that decision. More so, I was struck by the depth of that care and time and pain that I had entirely failed to see. Replaying the scenes of our interactions from September up until that day, all I can seem to remember are the moments in which he told me things were “ok,” insisted that he was “good, thanks” and then deflected to whatever drama had dictated my own week. In hindsight, there were indicative moments too. Times when he had expressed feelings of loneliness, or lack of inspiration. Whether it was conscious or not, I swept these moments under the all-consoling rug of his half-hearted “ok”s—allowing myself to believe that our performative check-ins carried more weight than his coded messages of discomfort.
I was upset at first. Then, immediately guilty. I think that it was easier for me to blame him for his emotional fiction than it was for me to take responsibility in the role I played as the questioner, the caretaker. In retrospect, more often than not, my “How are you”s were just as ornamental as his responses were. Therein lies the core of the problem: when I ask you how you are, do I mean it? And when you tell me that you’re “fine,” should I accept it? Is it okay to gloss over the substance of the question in the name of comfortable courtesy? And what are the implications of emotional artificiality in these 10 second check-ins?
The task of demanding emotional authenticity is made infinitely more taxing when staged on a college campus. As a first-year especially, who has known her closest friends here for—at most—three months, the idea of an intimate, comprehensive, soul-bearing exchange is more than daunting. It’s so seductive to present as chipper when the need to be liked in a new space is, at times, the only constant in a rapidly shifting social scene. At first I thought that to be vulnerable at school meant to lose allure—to put off potential friendships with the five thousand new people I’d just met. I saw the matter as black and white: who would I rather get to know, the girl dancing in the middle of the room, or the one crying in the corner? Who would I rather talk to, the girl cracking jokes with her friends, or the one asking me to bear my soul on the couch in her dorm’s common room? And so, in order to allow myself the best chance of social stability, I tried to entirely separate emotional candor from establishing a community. Honestly, I think most of us did this, and many of us are still doing it. I think a big part of what changed for me personally was the realization that, in the undeniably difficult transition to school, the people you meet who allow you to fully feel this difficulty are the only people worth befriending. It’s the ones who will allow you to feel comfortable crying in the corner, or baring your soul in the common room, that are here to stay. This first year is about building the foundations of community, and in my opinion, there’s nothing more important than populating that community with people to whom you feel you can offer support, and from whom you’re confident you can receive it. If you can’t allow yourself moments of vulnerability within the 40 second check-in, you can’t come to expect it for the next four years.
Though I don’t mean to place too much meaning on the pass-by, shout-out, good-thanks routine, I do think that it’s important to recognize the power of the words we choose in the few seconds that we allow ourselves to reflect. I’m worried for those of us who can’t find room for “realness” in these interactions. It’s terrifying to think of these “check-ins” as short-cuts—to think that in repeating a false pleasantry we might numb ourselves from the reality of where we’re at and of what we need. It’s scarier yet to think that some of us forget to take the time to have these check-ins with ourselves. And for those of us who do routinely take a moment to reflect on our own emotional well-being, how many of us continue to rely on fake “good”s and “fine”s? After a while, these small dishonesties become unbearable burdens, too heavy to carry on the shoulders of one person alone. After a while, the “good”s and “fine”s are what break us.
I’m consoled by the fact that, at the very least, my friend’s plan to transfer reflected a level of honesty that he had had with himself. He took the time, that we should all be taking, to mull over the valid, real, way that he felt in the space that he was in. He took the time to feel exactly how he was feeling, and he acted accordingly. He put himself first in an act of self-advocacy that’s hard to pull off, and that demands a level of sincerity that so many of us have overlooked. Though I’m still ashamed of the fact that I never offered him the moments of interpersonal reflection that he deserved, I find comfort in knowing that he was able to find in himself the ally that I had failed to be. I look back at it know, equally as ashamed, but abundantly more aware. I’d like to think that I’ve learned.
When we ask, “how are you,” we need to be intentional. We need to ask it as though it were as heavy as it has the potential to be. We need to create room in conversation for the question, and room to breathe before the response. We need to open to it, bend to it, and lean into it. And, most importantly, we need to begin treating the question as the bridge to a long, thoughtful conversation, rather than asking it as though it in and of itself were the destination. Expand the check-in with your friend from 10 seconds to 10 minutes. Expand the check-in with yourself from two minutes to an hour.
If we’re going to demand emotional transparency from ourselves, we need to be willing to examine our feelings honestly. What I’m proposing is that we deny ourselves the comfort of fake sentiment because, ultimately, do any of us gain from self-targeted deception? And how are we meant to seek help in the bad times or encouragement in the good, if we don’t grant ourselves the time to reflect and differentiate between the two? It’s only once we’ve grappled with our own mental health that we can start to support that of the other people in our lives.
If we’re going to demand emotional transparency from the ones we love, we need to be willing to return that transparency in response, and we need to refuse the artificiality of our emotional reflexes. “No,” we need to say, “I mean, how are you really?”