Wednesday, March 24, 2004


Among the stock phrases littering the conversation of Massachusetts -- including various uses of “all set” and the injunction to “Have a good one” -- the most troublesome is that question that is not a question: “How ya doin’?” or “How’s it goin’?” or “How are ya?”

In Massachusetts, these are used in passing, literally, to show the speaker truly cares about the other person, but not enough to stop and talk. Oddly, a simple greeting such as “Hello” creates more awkwardness than dismissive inquiries into another’s well-being because it’s generally too short to fill the time in which two people see each other, enter each other’s personal space and pass. “Hello” creates awkward silence, whereas by the time both parties have tossed out a “How ya doin’?” their back are to each other and they’re on to fresh challenges.

The implication is that if there’d just been more time, they could have shared much information and many pleasantries. Alas, there wasn’t enough time.

There are few people who’d be pleased if their question was taken seriously, and, indeed, anyone who does so is running the risk of being considered tedious or intrusive: “I asked how he was doing and the guy started telling me about his surgery and divorce, fer Chrissake.” Fortunately, few are that gauche.

The question-as-shield is so effective that I’ve consciously used it to escape conversations when I’m in a hurry, dazzling some unwitting victim blocking me from, say, getting to work. By the time they’ve formulated a response -- usually they’re “fine” -- I’m down the hallway, halfway to the stairs. But at least they know I cared enough to ask.

The downside is that when I’m asked how I am, it’s begun to make me bristle. If they really cared, I tell myself, they wouldn’t have asked. This became more acute when my Czech girlfriend acknowledged the phenomenon of the unquestion to the point that, in fact, when I ask her how she is, I usually have to stress that I’m actually interested in knowing.

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