Voices: What happens when people ask how you are – and you actually tell them

·5-min read

“Heartbroken.” “Really low.” “Frightened.” “Bored and frustrated.” “Hating my job.” “Wondering if I should get a divorce.” “Grieving – yes, even though it happened years ago. Grief isn’t linear and right now I feel like I’m at the bottom of a towering wave of concrete and I can’t imagine ever being able to lift my head up again.”

What would happen, if the very next time someone asked us that most innocuous of questions; so routine that the words themselves have ceased to have any meaning – “how are you?” – we told the truth?

If we traded our collective, quintessentially British, stiff upper lip stock answer of “fine” for something truer, more authentic and heartfelt?

Unthinkable? Terrifying? You’re not alone. But – and I don’t really expect anyone to have the answer – why? Why does it seem so scary to tell people how we really feel? Especially when we’d arguably all be a lot happier – and healthier – for it?

Particularly men, who (traditionally, anecdotally) tend to bottle up their emotions. After all, studies tell us that in 2021, the rate of suicides among males in the UK was 16 per 100,000 population, and among females it was 5.4 per 100,000. And, according to the Priory group, men are traditionally far less likely to seek support for mental health issues.

“This is probably for a number of reasons including stigma and the traditional ‘strong male’ stereotype still prevalent in our society – the idea that expressing emotion is a sign of weakness,” they say. Put simply: men might be suffering because they aren’t telling anyone how they feel.

And this is despite the fact that telling the truth when we’re having a hard time is recommended by experts. The psychologist, author and popular podcaster Nicole LePera says: “Practice telling the full truth of how you feel even when you cringe, even when you’re uncomfortable.”

Wildly, nervously, I decided to try it, buoyed by the idea of “speaking my truth”. I dipped my toe in the water with friends I hadn’t seen for a while. Sure enough, on meeting in a pub recently, the standard question came within the first five minutes: “How are you?” I took a deep breath and answered – “quite s***, actually.”

What came next was startling: hugs and admissions that they too weren’t actually as peppy as they’d first appeared. One was experiencing proper burnout and considering quitting her job of 10 years, another was having relationship problems. Once one of us revealed things weren’t entirely rosy, everyone else gave up the façade. I left the pub feeling like I’d been through therapy (in a good way).

I tried it again with a complete stranger at a work event: within moments, we were sharing intimate details of our divorces; his long-term wish for kids, my daily struggles with being a single parent. I don’t even remember his first name, but the sensation of relief I felt by speaking candidly for a change was immediate and profound, however transient.

I tried it a final time with my family – ironically, the closest people to us are often the hardest ones to confide in. But I did it: told my tweenage daughter I felt “sad” (and why). She clutched me to her. I felt better immediately.

A friend of mine who’s a hairdresser tells me clients share more personal details with her than she hears from her closest friends: of their love affairs, their health scares, the salacious details of their sex lives.

The research backs this up: Harvard sociologist and author Mario Luis Small discovered that while people would always say they’d trust those closest to them with their secrets; when asked who they’d actually last confided in, it was most often a stranger on a plane, in a waiting room or at a hair salon.

“We turn to acquaintances all the time,” Small has said. “People’s true pool of confidants is everyone they run into.”

What can we learn from this? Well, perhaps it’s simply that we should all just stop pretending. Stop saying we are “OK” or “fine” to the people who really want to know – such as our family and friends – when it’s the furthest thing from the truth. Maybe the bravest way to live is to trust that when people ask how we are, we should actually tell them.

When those in the public eye show honesty and integrity, as Robbie Williams did this week with his refreshingly candid comments about sex after marriage, we applaud them for it. And that should tell us something. It surprises us, because we’re all so used to appearing stoic when it comes to our true feelings and emotions; to wearing a mask in day-to-day life.

Secretly, I think we’re envious of those who are able to do it. Deep down, we know that being vulnerable is a strength.

So, try it. When someone in your life, important or otherwise (it could be a stranger at a bus stop, a fellow parent at the school gate, the person next to you at the checkout in a supermarket or someone in the family WhatsApp group) asks you how you are, tell them.

It might open the door to a whole new world of closeness, connection and authenticity. And really, ask yourself this: what’s the worst that can happen?