Have you ever had an American say to you, “Say, ‘eh’ for me”?

They think it’s funny when we Canadians say, “eh”, and, being the good-natured people we are, we oblige them.

We think of something random to say, put an “eh” at the end, but then it all comes out wrong; we just can’t put the right inflection on it and it comes out clunky.

That awkwardness reminded me of a conversation I had with someone last week. We chatted and then, an hour later, we bumped into each other again. And yet we started the conversation in the exact same way: “How are you? I am fine.”

Even as I was saying it, it sounded wrong; it sounded mechanical; it sounded hollow.

Why do we do this? Why do we start off so many verbal transactions with preset words that are akin to the words “basically” and “umm”.

“Basically” and “umm” are both noises that don’t mean anything in a conversation. “How are you?” doesn’t mean anything, either, if we don’t listen to the answer.

Try it sometime:

“How are you?”

“Fine, if the search warrant doesn’t stand up in court. How are you?”

“I am fine.”

I remember listening to CFRA in Ottawa, about 25 years ago. Lowell Green was on a campaign to not answer the question, “How are you?” when someone called in to his on-air show. I didn’t really understand the fuss, either way, until I had first started noticing the awkwardness of it.

I guess this stems from the fact that some people are casual acquaintances who deserve more than a “Hi”.

“How are you?” … “I am fine” adds that extra-personal touch – unless you stop and wait for an answer.

Still, what’s the harm in it? Letting someone know that you care about them is always a good way to start a conversation.

And it really is an opportunity to have some fun, shaking people out of the automatic-ness of it. When someone asks how you are, try saying, “Incredible” or “I’m in a walking coma”.

I’m just saying, conversing with other human beings can be a wonderful experience, but the sooner you get to the good stuff, the better.

Which of these has the most impact?:

“How are you? Why did you just key my F250?”

Or:

“Why did you just key my F250?”

The next time you are watching your favourite television show, count how many times a conversation starts with “How are you?” You will find they rarely do, because the writers want to get to the meat as soon as possible.

However, after saying all of this, I must admit that having someone ask me how I am, sincerely, feels really good. I know they are sincere when they are not drawing an extra load of breath, and raising a finger for emphasis, to launch into a narrative the moment I finish saying, “I’m fine”.

And none of this solves the problem of the telephone: when someone answers the phone, they say, “Hello.” The caller says, “This is Randy.” The person answering can now say only one of two things, “How are you?” or “What do you want?”

Of course, if the person answering is really quick on their feet, they can immediately throw back something like, “I heard about your problem … I think it is from too much protein before bedtime.” If you aren’t that quick, you should really go with “How are you?”