The Next Time Someone Asks How You Are, Be a Little Vulnerable

We confide in strangers more often than we realize

Photo: ridvan_celik/Getty Images

Over the past 13 months, “How are you?” has felt more and more like a ridiculous question — and yet I’ve asked it more times than I can count, to virtually everyone I’ve seen. It’s a socially conditioned reflex; even when we know the answer is “Not well, bitch,” we can’t help but ask.

And just as deeply ingrained is the meaningless reply: “Fine” or “Okay, given the circumstances” or “Hanging in there!” I have said some form of this answer while decidedly not hanging in there. I’ve heard it from people I knew for a fact were not fine.

Sure, there are times when the conversation needs to be hurried along and the “How are you?” is meant purely as a courtesy rather than an invitation. But there are other instances, with a friend, a family member, or even a stranger, where “How are you?” should evoke an honest response.

The social researcher Brene Brown has found that the key ingredient in connection is vulnerability. That might mean asking for what you really need in a relationship, being in a position where you could be rejected or criticized professionally or personally, or exposing yourself emotionally.

Being vulnerable is hard, and Brown found that people often shift to numbness, blame, and perfection in order to shelve those feelings of discomfort. We put up a tough outer exterior. But studies show we actually perceive acts of vulnerability — such as admitting a mistake or revealing romantic feelings — as strength in others but weakness within ourselves.

That only hurts us. Research shows when we share specific vulnerable experiences, we build closer, more intimate relationships with the people we’re sharing with. Vulnerability is a bonding tool — and after this hard, lonely pandemic year, we need bonding more than ever.

Confiding our deepest thoughts rarely comes naturally, though, even with those closest to us. In a 2013 study, the Harvard professor Mario Luis Small found that people are more likely to share with people they don’t feel emotionally attached to, like doctors or co-workers, mostly because they’re experts in a particular area or are physically there when something important comes up.

Within the first pages of his book, Someone To Talk To, Small recounts the time he vented for 15 minutes over the phone to a distant professional colleague. “If you had asked me whether I would ever confide something as personal as my anxieties about a book to someone I had only seen twice,” he wrote, “the answer would obviously be negative.” Still, he found, people tend to divulge personal information to those outside their circle of close friends or family.

Since we tend to seek support wherever we can get it, why inhibit ourselves when someone asks? Instead of swallowing the hurt and frustration, crack the veneer and be a little vulnerable. Of course, this isn’t an excuse to go full vent on some unsuspecting colleague, but just a little honesty when someone asks “How are you?” can foster the connection we crave.

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.

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