Asking 'How are you?' can actually be an insensitive question -- here's what you should say instead

Most of us ask one go-to question when we exchange pleasantries with friends, coworkers and peers:

“How are you?”

The question may seem harmless. But it tends to lead to one, socially acceptable answer:

“I’m fine.”

The problem is, “I’m fine,” is often not the truth. And if you’ve asked this question¬†to someone who is dealing with a lot in their personal lives, it may come across as insensitive.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg often felt this way when friends would ask her “How are you?” following the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg.

“After my husband died, I found the standard American greeting of ‘How are you?’ to be a really hard question to answer,” Sandberg told Business Insider in an interview about her new book about grief, Option B.

“The response to the standard American greeting of, “How are you?” is “I’m great.” And anything else is jarring.¬†When people are really suffering, and we know they’re suffering, that question can be a very difficult one. Inadvertently, I think without anyone meaning it, it communicates a lack of empathy.”

Instead, Sandberg recommends adjusting the question slightly: “How are you today?”

The slightly-altered question “has this implicit … ‘I get it, you are going through something hard and you are living day to day,'” Sandberg says. “And it’s a much kinder question.”

She notes that everyone grieves differently, and that she made the mistake of asking “How are you?” often, prior to her husband’s death.

Listen to the full interview with Sandberg on Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It” below. Or read the transcript of the interview here.

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