The first day you arrive to live in The States is amazing.
It’s like being in a giant Truman Show of The Truman Show, where all the movie Americanisms of The Truman Show are being laid on just for you, so you can feel like you’re living in an American movie.
You get to order skinny coffee drinks and take your groceries home from the store in a paper bag. You might want to go play baseball or eat a twinkie or be a mailperson lobbing crisp newspapers onto the lawn-mowered front gardens of perfect houses.
But better than that, the people are nice. They care. God, they care so much you could just go round and round the mall all day having people ask how you are.
Then you wake up on day two and remember something.
Every time you embarked on answering one of these kind people, a look of abject fear crossed their scrubbed face, quickly followed by one that said, ‘Don’t puke, it’s a clean tee!’
Because it’s not a question as such. It’s asked on a strictly no-need-to-answer basis. Fellow Yankie-doodles know this and that’s how they all get along so well.
Day in day out, they pull the string on their own backs to trot it out. For the uninitiated, here’s the template:
Sales Assistant: How are you?
You: (smile condescendingly)
Friend: How are you?
You: Like, totally awesome.
Good friend: How are you?
You: Ohmygod, my cat died. Did you meet her? Did you meet my cat? That tail. That unbelievably fluffy tail… Cindy? Where’d you go? Why have you left me the number of your therapist on this piece of paper?
That’s how it works.
It’s why no-one at Walgreens has ‘social worker’ written on their name badge; why groups of female co-workers are always laughing as they flick their long, blond hair over their shoulders; why best girlfriends don’t know the name of each other’s husband: ignorance is bliss.
Then one day when it rolls off their tongue, they look up and see you– fresh off the plane with your sepia teeth and personality clothes- and all they want to do is snap that rhetorical right back into their mouths.
You, with your European propensity to think your problems are worse than everyone else’s and your even grosser propensity to want to spill them.
Cut to a stay in an American hospital and they’ve made these little charts with sad and smiley faces on them, so you can communicate your pain.
It means that you jab at the miserable face if you’ve got an axe sticking out of your head so they don’t have to find an Anglo-American translator to say you’re not feeling too sharp.
It’s a good idea, unless you mis-point at ‘0’ and they think you’ve eaten a Krispy Kreme donut iced with MDMA (or perhaps just a Krispy Kreme donut: they’re very nice).
Back in the U of K How are you? is a minefield of interpretation. It’s not bandied about so freely, especially by sales assistants who couldn’t give a flying duck about your well-being.
You’re never sure of the level of interest; perhaps you’re not sure of your level of reveal. Is it a right-now-in-the-moment thing? Do they want a summary? Some dirt? An anecdote?
I propose that along with Gwyneth Paltrow and Subway, we bring the little charts over The Pond and keep them about our person.
Only they would be simpler.
Because fundamentally, there are only two states: going into a shit time on a downward curve or coming out of a shit time on an upward one*:
The rest’s just details and, hey, you’d be happy to share given half the chance.
But maybe your interlocutor doesn’t have that half chance to give; maybe they’d appreciate being given a little control.
As you grapple with your trouser button to expose the caesarean scar, pause to show them the chart and take on board if they’re eager for more: you may have misread some signals.
For potential playground encounters, there would be large-type versions.
A subtle prod at a point on the descending curve would be enough to say, ‘Don’t cross the grass. Push your child on the swings for a solid hour and you’ll still leave in a better mood than if you have a 5-minute conversation with me.’ (a mirror-image point, accompanied by smiling, would mean the same thing.)
They could carry a small Response Flipchart if hand signals suddenly felt too old-school- that would be up to them.
At least this way you’d feel 100% vindicated to finish a 3-hour whingathon with the phrase: ‘Well, you did ask.’
[*If you’re at C or D, see a mortician; if you’re at A, B or E save it for the other patients; if you’re at P, congratulations- you’re either God or you think you are]