So many meanings
"How are you?" is a standard greeting but when you have a life-limiting condition, what are the rules for answering this simple question?
In the UK, one of the most common way of greeting someone both at an informal level and even more formally is "Hello, how are you?". However, the question is not usually meant or interpreted as a searching enquiry after the person’s health and the standard reply therefore is "very well, thank you" or "fine, thank you."
However, when you have a life-limiting condition or a long-term illness, how do you know whether the person asking the question is simply greeting you informally or is actually enquiring after your health?
I was recently at an event with a large number of people who I had not seen for some time and I was unsure how many of them knew I had cancer. I lost count the number of times I was asked "how are you?" and, assuming they were just using the phrase as a greeting, my standard response was "I'm fine thank you".
A number of these people followed up with comments about how they had heard about my illness and further specific questions as to the nature of my health followed. Even then, the tendancy was to underplay the situation and still say "I'm fine". (The truth is, I do feel fine 75% of the time; the other 25% of the time, I feel positively wretched [thanks to the Prince for reminding me of this little-used word] as my body deals with the ravages of chemo).
There were occasions when the question "how are you?" was accompanied with the tilted head-to-the-side motion, indicating a level of sympathy, which I interpreted as knowing about my illness and an actual enquiry about my health.
A general rule of thumb when asked "how are you?" is how well do you know the person asking the question?
If they are a casual aquaintance who you only see occasionally, chances are they are merely being polite and using the question as a way of greeting you.
If it is a close family member or friend who you see regularly, "how are you?" is probably a lead in to a more in depth conversation about the state of your health or how your treatment is going. Of course, if you know the person that well, they may dispense with "how are you" completely and ask outright about your illness.
Assess the situation and don't be one of these people who, when asked "how are you?" launches into a diatribe about your health, work, kids and every other stress-related factor in your life. I only made this mistake once and after listening to me harp on for about 10 minutes, the person said "I was only being polite, I'm actually not interested."