Probably the most common phrase used among people on a day-to-day basis is: “How are you?” and “Good, how are you?” and that’s about it for that conversation. Unfortunately it’s something we as adults are expected to, and instinctively say to each other. It’s pretty much the same in most languages and cultures. Obviously, it’s the polite thing to say. You don’t know anything about someone so there’s really nothing else to say to them. That person you hold the elevator door for finally makes it inside and then: silence. Most people will settle for a simple “Hi” or just “Thanks”. Some drop the inevitable “How are you?”
Now in that situation, you’re both trapped in the same small vicinity for long enough to feel awkward if silence wasn’t established from the get-go. Now that someone asked how the other is doing, a little more conversation feels necessary depending on the length of the elevator ride. I notice people will often start spilling out random facts about their lives to cover up the unwanted silence–especially when getting stuck in an elevator with someone you actually do know, like a coworker or a manager. It’s funny how you find out a hell of a lot more about someone in an elevator than you do in months of working with them, passing them in the halls day in and day out.
This situation forces people to dig a little deeper because talking more has become expected. Even if they don’t really care about the other person’s life at all, well they’re going to find out today. This could either foster an actual friendship or more than likely just be a one-time thing. What I want to know is, how can we break the barrier of this endless wall of small-talk surrounding everyone and get acquainted with the intimate depth of a person? How can we make true friends without having to be thrown into an elevator with them?
When I think about my closest friends, we never say that phrase to each other. As a matter of fact, we probably never have. Not even once. That may be specific to us–maybe some of you say it to your close friends and are still able to connect with them pretty deeply. But in my experience, “How are you?” is a mechanism for small talk and is used among strangers, acquaintances, and co-workers I barely know. People I’m closest to don’t feel the need to be polite to me. They know me on a deeper level and have other ways of getting a conversation started.
Good friends I haven’t seen in a long time will of course ask me how I’ve been doing. The difference is that they actually want to know how I am as compared to how I was when we last saw each other. Passers-by say it out of politeness, not for an answer. The adult world is a hard place to make friends because everyone is so closed up–I know I’m much more reserved than I used to be in high school and college. Maybe the answer is to make friends in school while you can, because the real world is much less friendly…
I think, overall, the circumstances are situational just like anything else. If your life and job encompass talking to new people often and traveling, you may make friends more easily than someone who works in a quiet office where they work and go home, then work and go home, on repeat for the rest of their lives…
But I’m going on a strike and saying no more to small talk. When people ask me how I am from now on, I’ll answer actual answers, raw with details they may not even want to know. But that will reveal who could actually be a compatible friend to me or not. We all need to stop being afraid of what people will think when we let them in. If they don’t like you when you start being yourself and opening up, then you wouldn’t have been friends with them anyway. And at least life will be more colorful than this plain, depressing, black and white movie playing on repeat with meaningless questions for which no one cares to hear the answers.