How are you?

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In the world of everyday interactions, there are certain phrases and gestures that we all use as indicators of greeting, transition from one point to another, of hierarchy and of civility. They can be as simple as hello or as subtle as shifting one’s eyes away when it is time for a subject or conversation to end. But somehow, and without any formal training, we all seem to understand the rules. Of course, some are better and more adept at reading and responding to these cues and others appear hopelessly adrift, unable to receive even the most slow-pitch of gestures. But there is a third group of us, imagining ourselves to be above the petty and insincere who refuse, as much on principle as ego, to perpetuate the custom.

The man taking our restaurant order is simply doing a job, we might say, therefore, there is little reason to engage in the mindless banter of, “How are you tonight?” – or please and thank you. Do we really care whether this person is having a good day at work? And isn’t it a waste of words to say please when we clearly expect service and he clearly expects payment? Are these interactions superfluous?

To me, these exchanges are invaluable. They reinforce the social contract between us all. Simply put, one woman’s servant is another’s customer. By acknowledging the strata and clarifying roles, don’t we, in fact, enhance the speed and pleasure of the interaction rather than waste time or engage in unnecessary social fiction? With please, we show respect for the waiter’s toil. With thank you, he makes it clear that he understands the order and will deliver it soon. With ‘How do you do?’ are we inviting a healthy inquiry or just signaling a preparedness for exchange?

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