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“I’m good” has many meanings

Posted on Thursday, January 28, 2010 in Happiness, Honesty, Relationships

Sara and I were downtown having a latte when we heard a familiar voice.

“Sara, Kat!”

It was the mom of a boy our kids went to middle school with, but then went to a private high school — meaning we hadn’t seen her in a while.

But within about two minutes, we’d caught up on her life — the summer trip to Europe, the straight As and sports awards, the kitchen remodel, the nips and tucks.

Then, the inevitable.                

“So, how are you?”

Sara took the bait first.

“It’s been such a tough year. Ashleigh finally had surgery on her knee, so she was off the basketball team for a long time. My mom’s pretty ill and I had to move her into assisted-living: I can’t even tell
you how horrible that’s been. And my ex lost his
job and had to move up north, which has been hard on all of us, and my hours have been cut back, too.
I was sooo ready for 2009 to be over!”

“Oh, well, look on the bright side. There’s so much
to be thankful for.”

We chatted a little more and then, when we said
our goodbyes, Sara turned to me with a frown. “I think I’ve just been dissed.”

“Meaning ..?”

“She asked me how I’m doing, I told her the truth and she dismissed it with a cliche.”

“That’s because no one really wants to hear
how you’re doing when they ask you how
you’re doing. They just want you to say, ‘I’m good.'”

“So then why ask?”

Good question.

I’ve been guilty of the same thing — it’s just something to say, a social nicety. Odd how a “nicety” can be so disingenuous because we’re expecting a pat answer — “I’m good. How are you?” — rather than some sort of truth. Because then we’d actually have to pay attention … and maybe even care. Instead of zoning out over the answer or, perhaps, writing it off as someone who’s dwelling on the negative instead of the positive.

I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson’s passionate response in “A Few Good Men”: “You can’t handle the truth.”

When we ask that of a friend, we accept that we may get more than we bargained for — but, isn’t that what friends are for? But why do we ask that of a stranger or someone who’s ever-so-marginally in our social circle when we really don’t care, when their “I’m good” response is meaningless?

Because “I’m good” is almost always meaningless.

Except, of course, when an attractive man comes up to you and asks, “How are you?”

“I’m good, but if you get to know me better you’ll figure that out for yourself.”

A girl must always have a flirty bon mot at hand …

  • Is there a better thing to say when sharing a moment with a stranger other than asking, “How are you?”
  • When people give you a “negative” response — aka the truth — do you find that unnerving?

Photo © thierry planche –

Bring on the comments

  1. brian says:

    People somethings ask you the question because they then have an expectation that you will reply in kind which gives them the opportunity to vent or “share”

    Boy to Girl
    “How are you?”
    Girl to Boy
    “I’m fine”
    Boy to Girl
    “You sure are”

  2. Steve says:

    Most people can tell the difference between a genuine desire to know how someone has been and the polite greeting.

    Sara probably thought it was the former since Private School Mom gave everyone a lengthy report, not thinking that Private School Mom just wanted to brag and really wasn’t interested in anyone’s welfare.

  3. T
    Twitter: tsquest

    I say,

    “Getting better all the time!”

    Even if I’ve had a difficult time, I know it will get better eventually.
    .-= T´s last blog ..Heartbreak Warfare =-.

  4. I am NO expert on casual conversation, but sometimes I ask, “What’s new and exciting? [pause] Or old and boring?” I think people appreciate the freedom to be ordinary. It is, after all, a lost art here in Marin.
    .-= Greta Koenigin´s last blog ..Epic =-.

  5. Kat Wilder says:

    New blog posting, "I'm good" has many meanings –

  6. Cathy says:

    I don’t answer people when they ask. It’s a bullshit question. If I’m in a mood (which happens a lot) and it’s not a professional setting, I reply with “do you want me to make you happy or do you want me to lie to you?”

    It isn’t that things aren’t good usually. It’s that, as you suggested, no one really wants to know.