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Colin Johnson’s blog

“How are you?”

It sometimes surprises me quite how formulaic the smalltalk at the beginnings of conversations is. I know that it isn’t acceptable to respond to the question “How are you?” with a list of your latest ailments and insecurities, but it is still sometimes surprising how much that part of a conversation is a cognitive readymade, without any ready deviation. I remember a couple of incidents in the days after my father died.

  1. Meeting a colleague a few days after my father had died. Wanting, gradually, to let people know what had happened, I responded to his “How are you?” with a “Actually, not so good.”, expecting to get a query back about what had happened. Instead, I just got the response “Great, I’m fine.”, as if I had said (as I would 99.9999% of the time) “I’m fine, how are you?”. Literally, my response hadn’t been processed at all. If you want some evidence for hearing being a process of anticipation then you’ve got it there. There’s no other response in the “repertoire” to “How are you?” other than minor variants on “Fine, how are you?”, so the brain doesn’t even really bother processing what has been said. Any response is just treated as the standard one.
  2. Speaking to my uncle a day or two after my father had died (I had already told my uncle). This time, he asked first: “How are you?”. My response, understandably: “Not too good.”. My uncle’s response—no criticism intended, this is just a point about how deeply embedded language structures are—”Oh, why is that then?”. I was, very unusually, struck dumb for a few seconds. For a moment I thought “Perhaps I didn’t tell him that Dad had died?”; for surely, someone wouldn’t say something so crass to someone who had just lost a parent—surely it would be obvious why I “wasn’t too good”. Eventually, I managed to stutter out “Well, you know, Dad died yesterday.” It is bizarre how fixed our linguistic patterns are that, even after one of the worst things that can happen to you, saying that you are anything other than “fine” causes our whole language generation system to collapse.

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