There is a sweet woman at my church who picked up a new habit over a year ago that she found charming and a great opportunity to witness. She first brought it up in a group we were both part of by talking about the rather inane greeting habit that I, too, find rather pointless. Assuming you have eyes and ears and a working tongue and have left your house since adulthood, you have participated in it. It goes like this:
Two people approach each other from different directions. Whether they know each other or not is irrelevant. Maybe they make eye contact, maybe they don’t. Maybe they smile, maybe they don’t. Maybe they nod, maybe they don’t. Maybe they slow down, most likely they don’t.
“Hello,” says one. “How are you?”
“I’m fine. You?”
Whether any variation of that last line occurs depends heavily on how fast the people were walking and whether they actually know each other. It’s usually either mumbled or not bothered with.
I’ve always found this pointless. Likely, neither party actually cares how the other is doing. They certainly don’t slow down to absorb the information, not expecting more than a one word response. The second party almost always responds that they are fine, regardless of whether they are. If they respond that they aren’t fine, it’s almost a social faux pas. They’ve deviated from the script. We are just making noise. We don’t really care.
We might as well just grunt at each other in passing.
Some people have changed from “fine” to “I’m blessed”, which they imagine to be a more positive response than the rather bland “fine”. Initially, this annoyed me even more because I found it too full of sweetness. Eventually, though, I recognized it as just another phrase that that particular person uses every time in the silly little greeting play and left it alone.
The sweet woman from my church had also found “I’m blessed” to be too rote and pointless, although I think she found it an improvement over “fine”. Someone that she heard on TV or radio said that Christians should respond to “How are you?” with “I’m thankful!”
I reacted to this the same as I did to “I’m blessed” but held my tongue as she continued. “When you do that,” she said, “it takes people by surprise and they ask you why you are thankful and then you have the opportunity to tell them! You should always be ready with a response!”
I personally thought that many people would respond with an internal groan and a roll of their eyes but I didn’t say so. Several of the other hearers of her wisdom, those possessing of less cynicism and more grace, exclaimed that they thought it was a wonderful idea. And so it came to be that this woman and one of the men replaced their “fine” with “I’m thankful”.
I have an almost visceral reaction to people manipulating me, whether the manipulation is nefarious or not. If I know you want me to behave or respond in a certain manner, I will resist. Especially if I find the whole process silly. In this particular scenario, I know the game. I know they are saying they are thankful in order to provoke me to ask them why and I refuse to play along.
Ironically, I can’t drop the decades old habit of asking people how they are doing, or of responding to a similar request with “I’m fine – how ’bout you?”. Which means I’m inevitably faced with their “I’m thankful” response, to which I have always responded with some variation of “that’s nice” or a smile and a nod.
After a year of this, one such exchange happened recently between me and the sweet woman’s disciple while the sweet woman was present. She turned to the man and said significantly and with reproof, “She didn’t ask you why you’re thankful.”
“No, she didn’t,” he responded with mild, slightly feigned disapproval before saying matter-of-factually, “She never does.”
It hadn’t struck me that we had exchanged greetings often enough for them to notice my passive aggressive refusal to play along. I smiled at them and said truthfully, “It’s because I know you are expecting it.”
We are different creatures, them and me. They happily absorb themselves in sweet platitudes and feel-good moments and habits. Me, I am cynical, logical, and analytical – to a fault. I find a system of interaction that you have constructed with expectations for people to respond in a particular way to be at best silly and at worst exclusionary.
On the silly end, I don’t find their habit of saying “thankful” any different than anyone else’s habit of saying “fine” or “blessed”. I don’t see why they should expect anyone to ask why someone is thankful any more than asking why someone is blessed (or fine, for that matter). I would bet that most people don’t ask why so I don’t feel compelled to ask just because I know they are fishing for it.
On the exclusionary end, those that “get it” can respond appropriately and make the thankful person feel good about the response. Those that don’t, the thankful person can categorize in his or her mind as inattentive and unloving for not caring to ask. As a person who knows what they want yet not willing to give it to them, I suppose I don’t get even the possibility of benefit of doubt.
Hopefully they just think I’m stubborn rather than insensitive. I’m learning to be true to myself, regardless of how people expect me to behave. I’m pretty sure those two people still love me so I guess it’s working out ok. Then again, if I’m not going to make myself into the image that each person I come across expects, then I suppose I’ll also have to be content with some folks deciding they don’t like what they see.