"How are you?" was never a great question to kick off a meeting or conversation. As author and Wharton School professor Adam Grant pointed out on Twitter, "How are you?" rarely starts a meaningful conversation. It prompts us to summarize our emotions instead of sharing the stories and insights behind them."
It's an even worse opener during the current crisis. As psychologist Jane Dutton explained on the TED Ideas blog, the question falls particularly flat on Zoom. "People are pretty tired of the same old 'How are you doing?' question," she observes.
And if someone is actually suffering at the moment (as so many of us, unfortunately, are) the casualness of the question suggests you don't really want to know how they are, forcing the other party to perform fake cheerfulness. Psychologists say this sort of "toxic positivity" has real mental health costs.
So what are some better alternatives to "How are you?" for the Covid-19 era? Dunne, Grant, and others have suggestions:
1. What surprised you this month?
Grant insists it's better to ask about experiences than emotions, suggesting this offbeat opener as an example.
2. What did you do this week that you loved?
"Ask a question that taps quickly into something that's meaningful to people and conveys, 'I am genuinely interested, and I genuinely care,' " suggests Dunne, who offers the above question as an example.
3. Tell me a highlight of your day.
Another happy alternative from Dunne.
4. Tell one story of a silver lining that happened this week.
Both Grant and Dunne endorse this variation on the idea of asking people to share a little positivity. "Talking about silver linings acknowledges that something negative has happened, but it also touches on the positive that you've made of it," Dunne explains. She suggests this might be a good opener for a big group Zoom call.
5. What's something you're excited about?
Thrive Global recently rounded up suggestions of alternative openers from readers. This one comes from Craig Inzana, a content creator from Omaha, who used this question even before the pandemic: "It's open-ended enough for someone to talk about their work, their favorite TV show, or anything else that they're loving at the moment. I love watching someone's face light up when they get to talk about something that excites them."
6. What's been keeping you busy?
"I've recently found that asking people more specific, but not intrusive, questions leads to a more authentic exchange," Marta Chavent, a management consultant in France told Thrive Global. Her favorite version of this approach is the question above.
7. What have you learned about yourself lately?
One last idea via Thrive Global: "Not only have I realized that they usually open up and are willing to share personal stories, but they also get excited about sharing something positive related to personal growth," California-based marketing director Isabelle Bart said of her suggestion.