I have a habit that drives me crazy. I mean it really bothers me.
I can’t stop asking people how they are doing.
It might not sound bad. It might not end my marriage. But believe me, it’s awful.
As a lawyer, no one comes to me without a problem. Often, they come with very big, life-changing problems. Maybe their business partner of 20 years just left the country with the company’s assets. Maybe their marriage is falling apart. Sometimes, they are in tears because their daughter has been charged with a felony.
I charge people to listen to and help them with their problems. I’m like a therapist except I don’t have a couch, I’m more expensive, and, instead of encouraging you to work through your problems, I insist that you must sue.
Here’s how it usually goes. One of us walks into the room or answers the phone.
“Hi, how are you?” I say.
Stop right there. What kind of an idiot am I? How do you think they are? They’ve come to see me. No one comes to see me unless they are in trouble. They are literally in my office or on the phone because they have a problem. No one comes to me and says, “Adam, I like you. Everything in my life is going really well. The one thing I’m missing is a bill from an attorney. Can you take care of that for me?”
Even knowing that the words coming out of my mouth are stupid, I can’t stop myself.
Once I tried walking in with no greeting. I wore a black suit. I looked very somber. I walked in the conference room and found that my client was still in the lobby.
I walked out to the lobby. As morosely as I could, I said, “how are you?”
Dang it, again.
Another time I tried, “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” But his name was Mr. Jones—he didn’t get it.
My insensitivity to a client’s situation isn’t the only problem with the greeting situation.
The question is also mostly meaningless. Read it out loud so you can hear it: “How are you?”
What does it really mean? How are you what? How are you doing? Is “good” the answer? Isn’t that answer only correct if, at that very moment, you are engaged in some kind of philanthropic endeavor. “Oh, hello. As I can see from the child whose broken arm you are currently setting while escorting Widow Davidson across the street, you are doing good right now. It pleases me to know that.”
But since you’re probably just a depraved sinner anyway, is the whole thing just a fiction?
Because we live in a society that, for survival, procreation, and communication, doesn’t insist on exact literalness, we ignore the grammatical problems of answering how we’re doing with “good.”
But ignoring the obvious problem only multiplies the problems. I was at a wedding over the weekend when someone I hadn’t seen in 18 months greeted me with this gem: “How are you? Good? Good.” And then, having handled the entire meaningless conversation himself, he walked off. I was fine with that, though. He was a lawyer. Those guys are lousy to talk to.
Courage, though, for we are in the middle of salvation: The holidays.
I can finally get away with offering non-traditional greetings. “Happy Halloween,” is a little weird, but you get a day out of it in October. “Happy Thanksgiving,” works for about a week in November. But December is the mother lode. I get a solid four and a half weeks of “Merry Christmas.” And that is followed by a bonus week or so of Happy New Year.
“Merry Christmas,” I say, joyfully, to everyone regardless of race, color, or creed. Do you know why it’s so great? The only real response is “Merry Christmas.” Or they could ignore me or give me a dirty look or flip me the bird. I suppose many responses are available. But the most frequent response, including from the stranger delivering a package today to my door in a Lyft car, is “Merry Christmas.”
Done. Handled. The greeting is over. Let’s get to business. I have a Jewish friend from Brooklyn. Do you know what I say to him in December? “Merry Christmas.” Not because I’m insensitive, but because, celebrate it or not, I hope he has a Merry Christmas. Do you know what he says back to me? “Merry Christmas.”
It might not work for everyone, but it’s better than “how are you?”
And let’s face it, unless you’re paying me, I probably don’t care.