We’ve all been there. Someone asks you how you are, and you respond with “fine thanks” without even thinking. “Pretty good” and “not bad” are other popular auto-responses. And then there’s the dreaded exchange where you ask someone how they are twice within 10 seconds — “How are you? Fine thanks, you? Yeah good. You?”

‘How are you?’ has become a question that is almost rhetorical – one that we’re supposed to answer as if we were following a script. Say hello, ask each other how it’s going, respond that everything’s great and then move on to the next topic of discussion!

Which makes it a whole lot harder to answer when you’re not fine. When things aren’t going great. When you’re experiencing a mental health condition. Three million people in Australia are living with an anxiety condition or depression. Many of them will have said ‘I’m fine’ today – probably more than once.

In her article for The Washington Post, Alexandra Petri says, “’How are you?’ is less an actual question than a fun conversational call-and-response. You might as well say, ‘Marco?’ We need the call-and-response, but without the pressure of opening every conversation with an outright lie — or at the very least, a slight exaggeration.”

Having meaningful conversations with friends and family is so important as it presents you, or the person you’re talking to, with an opportunity to open up about issues you’re dealing with. Starting a conversation off with a scripted ‘I’m fine’ doesn’t exactly set the scene for an honest chat to follow.

It’s ok to let your guard down every now and then. In her powerful Ted Talk on The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown says, “We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.”

If you’re having a hard time, perhaps you’d like to get the ball rolling by saying that you’ve had a tough week at work or uni, or that your motivation has been lacking lately. Sharing some of the things you are struggling with can help start the conversation. Be careful not to make it all about you though.

It goes both ways. If you ask a friend or family member how they are, pay attention to their response.

This is not to say you have to treat every conversation with friends and family as a ‘deep and meaningful’ – rather to listen to a person’s response when you ask them how they’re going. Be relaxed but also show that you care about how they’re going. Look them in the eye. If you’ve observed that they have been behaving differently of late, let them know that you’ve noticed a change. Practise being a good listener and don’t interrupt them or rush the conversation. Give them the opportunity to explain if they’re going through a rough time. Tell them that you’re there for them.

Never underestimate the power of a conversation. Suicide prevention campaigns such as #YouCanTalk and RUOK Day emphasise the importance of honest, meaningful conversations. For someone going through a rough time, it might be just what they need.

So, how are you today?

Related reading: 10 ways to be there for someone

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