-¿Qué tal? ¿Todo bien?
-Sí, sí, bien, ¿Y tú?
Small talk. Being here I am reminded of my 7th grade days when I had to confront the then unfamiliar phrase “How are you?”
Until then, no one had ever asked me the question before. No one asks a little kid “How are you?” because little kids don’t know how they are. And maybe people also subconsciously intuit that a kid wouldn’t understand why anyone would ask a question and yet be indifferent to its response.
I struggled for a long time with small talk. Why is this person asking me a question every day as a routine? Am I supposed to answer completely honestly or just casually? And why is there something I’m “supposed” to do…can’t I just answer the question? But why does the other person feel that it’s pertinent to our relationship to ask? And if someone doesn’t really want to know, then why does he insist on asking?
It’s such a strange social phenomenon that we feel as though we have to ask that. We can’t just begin a conversation on topic nor can we pass by a familiar face without verbally acknowledging it.
It’s not that we want to know how the person is, but rather confirm that we aren’t ignorant of a change in the person’s life. That is really the social blunder that is at stake in the question “How are you?” We have to make sure that we are responding to the most current version of the person. Just like Macs always have updates to be uploaded, asking “how are you?” is checking to see if there are any updates to your current version of Ariela (version 2.4.5 of course!). Ignorance or lack of interest in these changes would be offensive.
So we must ask “How are you?” because how else is each of us to believe that we matter to other people?
I became so accustomed to small talk in English that I had forgotten how hard it was for me to keep it going (“it” being talking about nothing at all) when I first started at age 11.
And then I got here and all over again I am struggling to think of something to say when someone asks me how I am. The conversation above is about as far as I can get without freezing up. What more can I tell this person other than that I am fine (and in Spanish there seem to be way less acceptable responses to “¿Qué tal?”—pretty much only “bien”—as opposed to “good,” “fine,” and “ok” in English) and how are you? My mind draws a blank and I freak out from minor embarrassment at my lack of ability to communicate. I don’t even remember what it is that I say to someone in English to keep the conversation running smoothly. I suppose I usually volunteer information about myself or respond with “I’m fine,” in a tone that finishes the encounter definitively. I’ve really got to work on this one cause I keep coming off as a moron.