How Are You? Just Give Me Your Stock Answer.
No, really. I want to know your stock answer.
At night, AM radio signals can travel for hundreds of miles, further than they can during the day, due to a phenomenon called “skywave propagation.” It has something to do with the sun’s rays and how radio signals bounce off the ionosphere and I don’t really understand it. But the upshot is that in the mid-1990s in Arizona, if I was bored at night on the weekends, I would sometimes fiddle with the radio dial and listen to the talk shows being broadcast from Los Angeles radio station KFI AM 640.
One show in particular was called “Ask Mr. KFI” hosted by someone who simply went by the name Mr. KFI (which caused a little bit of an issue when he later moved his show to KABC). The conceit of the show was that he had no topics or screeners, and people could just call him up and ask whatever they wanted. Mr. KFI called the show a “modern-day campfire.”
It was kind of a stupid show, but amusing enough to occupy my insomnia brain in the early internet days. The web hadn’t taken off yet, but Mr. KFI did have a dedicated newsgroup.
Mr. KFI had rules for his show. Like, if you said “um” three times, he hung up on you. And he never had guests, but he did have people “hang out” with him on air — what other shows might call guests. And because some people called with the same questions over and over, he came up with pat responses to the most commonly asked questions.
Naturally, the most common question was the one people asked instinctively as soon as they were on the air: “How are you?”
Mr. KFI’s pat response was “Better than most, not as good as some.”
I liked that response. “Better than most, not as good as some” was probably true for me on any given day. Maybe, I thought, I should try saying that the next time someone asks how I am.
Social Learning Theory says in part that when we observe other people’s behavior getting a positive result, and then try it ourselves, we may end up taking on that behavior as our own if we also get a positive result.
Well, I must have gotten a positive result when I tried it because for a while, Mr. KFI’s response became my own response any time someone asked me how I’m doing.
Hi, David, how are you? Better than most, not as good as some!
For the next few years, I went through periods where this was my go-to answer. I graduated college, entered the workforce, and I was always better than most, not as good as some.
Well, not always. I realized quickly that when someone is passing you in the hall at work and they say, “Hi, how are ya?” there’s not really enough time to get out “Better than most, not as good as some” before they are long gone. It’s a bit of a mouthful. So in those instances, I was “Good, thanks!”
When I did get to say it, this was usually what happened: First, I would see a look on the other person’s face as they were surprised (maybe disappointed?) that I didn’t just say “fine” or “good” like everyone else. And then I would see the gears turn as they processed what I said. Then they would often say that they, too, were better than most and not as good as some.
And that’s how it went for many years until I began to get bored with that answer.
I was the staff photographer for Polo Ralph Lauren in the early 2000s. While corporate headquarters were at 59th and Madison, my office was on East 45th Street in the same building as the lab that did most of our printing. I worked on the 12th floor, and the lab occupied the 4th through 6th floors. Being in the same building made it easy to run film and prints between the companies.
One day, I arrived at work and, as I headed to the elevator, the guy at the security desk asked me how I’m doing.
“Better than most, not as good as some!” I told him.
As the elevator doors closed and I pressed the button for the 12th floor, I realized that I was sick of that stock response. It was too complicated. People didn’t want to have to think about my answer when they ask that question. They just want to be polite and move on with their day. That response had a good run, and I was done with it.
But then, what would I say when people ask how I’m doing? I’m fine? Good? Those answers are so boring!
Then I remembered that old-fashioned phrase, “Fair to middling.” You never really hear people say that anymore. I tried it out in my head: How are you doing? Fair to middling. It’s short and quick to say. Uncommon but not unusual. I could even pronounce it middlin’ to make it more folksy. Yes. That was going to be my new response.
I couldn’t wait to try it out.
I was the only person in the elevator as it stopped on the 4th floor. It was one of the floors of the printing lab. I might know whoever gets in the elevator, and surely they would ask me how I’m doing. This would be my first chance to use my new response! I was so excited!
But the elevator door opened and there was some woman I didn’t know. She didn’t say anything to me as she got in the elevator. Damn. I moved aside to make room for her. She pressed the button for the 6th floor and we started moving again.
The elevator stopped on the 5th floor. Maybe now I’d get my chance!
But again, the doors opened and there was a stranger. Some guy I didn’t know.
But he knew the woman. And as soon as he saw her, he said, “Oh, hi, Nancy! How are you doing?”
And Nancy replied, “Fair to middling!”
After being thwarted by Nancy, I gave up. I became one of those people who just says, “Fine” or “Good.” It works. It’s a utilitarian answer. But every now and then I still pull out “Better than most, not as good as some” for old times’ sake.
So what about you? How are you doing? What’s your go-to answer?
Let me know in the comments. Meanwhile, have a Merry Christmas if that’s something you celebrate, and a Happy New Year. I’ll see you in 2024.