This One Question You Always Ask Can Kill a Conversation, Experts Say
And these are the questions you should be asking instead, according to etiquette experts.
Making small talk can be stressful—from knowing what to say to figuring out what not to say. But whether you're chatting up a friend, someone you've met a few times before, or a stranger, there's a common question you're likely asking in any conversation: "How are you?" But if you're looking for a more substantial interaction, that standard go-to question might actually be working against you. Yes, according to experts, asking "how are you?" could be killing your conversation.
As one 2019 CNBC article put it, "how are you?" represents "the three most useless words in the world of communication." That's not based on opinion, but rather a 2017 Harvard Business School study that had researchers looking at the kinds of questions that inspired more meaningful conversation. Thoughtful, significant questions—as opposed to "how are you?" or the dreaded "what do you do?"—made the other person on the receiving end like the question asker more.
"How are you?" feels especially fraught in 2020, a year when no one seems to be doing especially well. People are still asking the question—whether behind face masks or computer screens—but it's unlikely that many people are answering honestly, especially when it comes to casual conversation.
"Amidst the fog of COVID-19, political turmoil, and racial unrest, the question still remains," says etiquette educator Marie Betts-Johnson, president of the International Protocol Institute of California. "This is, more than likely, going to receive a perfunctory answer of, 'I'm well, thank you,' or, 'I'm fine, thank you.'"
As Betts-Johnson notes, you can tell a lot from a person's body language—and depending on your relationship, you may want to investigate further if their "I'm fine" doesn't seem particularly convincing.
In truth, "how are you?" has rarely generated a sincere response when it comes to small talk. "Apart from the extraordinary times we live in, people have not expected a candid answer to this question for decades, so this is not suddenly a new trend!" Betts-Johnson adds.
However, according to etiquette educator Karen Thomas, founder of Karen Thomas Etiquette, asking "how are you?" even in these uncertain times is still acceptable, as long as you're not "doing so only as an obligation and do not wish to engage in conversation." She also recommends simple statements like "I know this time has been difficult for many—hope you are safe and well" as an alternative.
But if you really want to make conversation, it's worth referring back to the Harvard study and thinking about questions that can allow the other person to express themselves and that also don't feel as meaningless and potentially conversation-ending as "how are you?"
Etiquette expert Bonnie Tsai, founder and director of Beyond Etiquette, says, "You can start with topics like shared hobbies, favorite food/restaurant take-out, favorite shows, favorite workouts, etc. From there you can gauge if the other person is open to having a deeper conversation."
Sometimes, of course, you do really want to know how another person is doing, so it's important to consider context. As Betts-Johnson points out, "If COVID-19 is rampaging through your city and everyone is in a fight for survival, it's ludicrous to ask such a question." But if you're talking to someone you know well enough to feel comfortable with, you can try asking "how are you?" in a slightly more meaningful way.
"You can ask, 'How is your mental well-being,' 'How is your family coping,' or 'How can I best support you during this time?'" Tsai recommends. "Keep in mind to only offer your support if you feel up for the task since being there for others can take a toll on your own well-being."
There are certainly ruder questions to ask than "how are you?" and asking the question won't necessarily doom your conversation forever. "This question on greeting is here to stay," Betts-Johnson admits. But instead of defaulting to it, consider the ways you can make better small talk or have even deeper conversation at a time when we all could use a little extra kindness. And for more advice on keeping the conversation going, People Don't Trust You If You Text With This Punctuation Mark, Study Says.