Everything is going really well. Like, REALLY well. My work is great, my boss is supportive, I finally make good money. My personal hobbies have been extremely rewarding and I’ve found a lot of success and new opportunities.
But I find that when people ask, “How are you?” the expected answer is “Oh, fine. How are you?” I like to be honest and say, “Things are great!” but I feel guilty when this happens.
I’m not rubbing it in, I’m answering the question, but I worry if the asker was even expecting an answer in many cases. I don’t want sharing stories of my recent happiness to come off as me being a jerk. What’s the best way to talk to friends and acquaintances about positive things happening in life without coming off like an asshole?
First, congratulations on life going well. It seems rare for work and life to line up in awesomeness, so go you!
That said, you’re right that culturally many of us have been trained to respond to that question with a slightly positive but mostly neutral response — “I’m fine.” “I’m good.” “Can’t complain.” — and then quickly move on to discuss whatever horrible thing the US President / the UK Foreign Minister / the latest Bachelor contestant is doing at the moment.
I also think that the conditioning to give the answer of “fine” is more about preventing us from sharing things that are overly sad or dark, as opposed to preventing people from sharing that their life is amazeballs. The parts of society that I’m most familiar with tend to know how to (at least pretend to) be happy for others; where we struggle is with knowing what to do when someone opens up about the tough times they are going through.
Either way, I think our expectations around the responses we hope to get — or plan to give — depend on who we’re talking to and what the context is. Basically, the way we talk to acquaintances about our lives and the way we talk to our friends about our lives can differ.
These are the folks who I’ve met a few times or who run in the same circles as I do, but who I’m not able to give much energy to. When I see them, I ask how they are mostly because just saying “hello” and then standing there awkwardly is frowned upon. If they tell me they’re doing great, I’ll probably follow up; if they tell me they’re doing poorly, I’ll probably say something like “oh no, hopefully that won’t be the case for long.” But I’m usually not prepared for anything deeper with someone who isn’t a closer friend.*
Given that, when interacting with acquaintances I’d suggest that you offer up more than “I’m fine” but less than “… and here’s all the awesome things that are happening.” Not because you should dampen your achievements and experiences, but because that’s not where that relationship is at the moment. I’d go with “Things are good. I’m really happy with work and life in general. How are you?” That leaves an opening for them to ask about what specifically is good at work or in your personal life, but also allows them to just respond with “I’m good too, thanks” and then leave it there.
This should be easier to navigate. If folks are your friends, they should be happy for you and want the details of what’s making your life rock. Of course, that isn’t always the case; there are times where people feel even more low when someone close to them is experiencing a lot of success and happiness.
But that’s their issue, not yours. You shouldn’t have to keep your own happiness bottled up because you don’t want to break social norms about how we’re supposed to interact. Share your joy! Be proud of how things are going for you.
That said, keep in mind what I said above about people hesitating to be honest about how they are when how they are is “real shitty.” Friends — even close ones — who hear how great your life is might temper their own response when you ask how they are. They might not want to drag you down, or not want to compete with your happiness (which I hate, because there isn’t some finite amount of happiness out there – you being happy doesn’t mean I can’t be).
That’s certainly their right; depending on their energy levels, or how much time you all have to chat, they might not think it’s worth getting into in that moment. But if you see a pattern in your interactions, I’d suggest following up when it feels appropriate. Instead of offering the details of how even more fantastic your life has gotten since last you spoke, say things are still good, and then genuinely ask how they are doing. Make it clear you want to know what’s going on in their lives. That gives them an opening and shows that regardless of how awesome your life is, you still have the time and space to be there when things aren’t going so great for them.
*That isn’t always the case; sometimes an interaction with an acquaintance can lead to a really interesting conversation born out of us both being in the right state of mind. But I don’t think that’s always — or often — the case with those relationships.