Go beyond answering machine
December 6, 2010 —
For four summers I worked at an ice cream shop and I enjoyed the job. Between free ice cream and decent pay, I couldn’t complain. When I asked customers how I could help them, they usually replied with a quick glance from the menu to me and a sigh saying, “Hmm, how are you?” This became so standard that I developed a robotic response, “Pretty good, how are you?”
This worked just fine until one day I asked how the customer was before he asked me. This disordered sequence hurled me into a world where up is down and left is right. The customer said, “Good, how are you?” I had become so accustomed to my above response that I answered, “Pretty good, how are you?” Quickly realizing that I had already asked them how they were literally thirty seconds prior, I decided to try covering it up by spreading my smile even further across my face. My smile may have done the trick, but I think the customer was less concerned with how I was and more concerned with how fast I could get a hot fudge sundae in front of him. I don’t blame him. I was there to get him his ice cream and he was there to attribute to my pay check. I was not too worried about my superficial relationship with many of the customers, but my apathy has carried over into most conversations and that just doesn’t sit well with me.
Being on such a small campus, I would compare many of my interactions at SVSU to those at the ice cream shop. Seeing many acquaintances throughout the day, I fall back to, “Pretty good, how are you?” That old habit is hard to break.
Sometimes though, I have different questions I would like to ask. Often times, instead of asking how they are, I would rather ask the person what their favorite kind of pie is or on a scale of one to ten, how much they like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Sometimes I wonder what ninja turtle the person would most like to be.
I am more interested in these questions because not only does this create a more insightful conversation, it is genuine. Regardless of an acquaintance’s mood, they are going to tell you they are fine, all right or good. They are likely to lie about how they feel because they don’t want to seem like a complainer or they just don’t want to talk about it with you. On the other hand, if you ask them what their favorite pie is, they have fewer motives for lying. The answer to the question can be as simple as saying good or fine, but there is no need to lie. The asker can walk away with new factual information of the person, and the person asked can walk away thinking about pie and know that the asker likes pie (or at least thinks about pie). Everyone wins.
This may seem strange, but isn’t it even more strange to ask someone such a loaded question as, “How are you” when you are expecting a quick, usually one word answer? Human emotions are too complex to be summed up in a short interaction and limited words. If you are looking to have a distant relationship with that person, it seems more appropriate to keep the questions less personal. I am willing to tell just about anyone what kind of pie is my favorite (pumpkin); I am more reserved with my emotions. I think most people feel similarly.
This new approach to greeting people also is more sensitive to other’s emotions. If someone is having a bad day, asking them how they are can be offensive. But unless people have pie demons in their closet, it is unlikely they will view such a question as hurtful. Pie demons are most likely related to poor crust quality. An important side note in case you run into this person.
I believe that many people are already using this strategy around campus. I like to think that acquaintances that look at me from far away, then suddenly act interested in every poster they pass are not ignoring me, but simply searching for a question they would like to ask me. They become so focused on the question though, they forget to ask me, or even acknowledge me at all. For these people, I suggest a brainstorming session in private so when the opportunity arises, there is a question ready to go. This way there is no awkward stare down waiting for poster watcher to look up.
Concluding this article is proving to be as awkward as walking by a poster watcher. There are no specific points that need to be further emphasized. Oh, no, hmm. If you could be a sea turtle or an eagle, which would you choose?