Imposter syndrome has been a recent hot topic on campus, which refers to the internalized fear that one will be exposed as a fraud. What kinds of things perpetuate it, does it truly affect us? How deeply in our subconscious does it lie? This dialogue has gotten me thinking about a common interaction that each of us goes through a multitude of times on any given day: the exchange of polite speech. Polite speech can be seen in that brief moment when you see someone you know in passing; you say hello with a smile and ask how they are doing. They respond typically with something like “good” or “I’m doing alright” or “it’s going!” These responses are almost mechanical, falling upon the ears of our acquaintances quicker than we can even process the interaction in its entirety.
Why do we do this? I doubt it is because in that moment we want to check in with a person on an intimate level. The environment is too public and the moment too hurried to undergo an effective check-in with a friend. Instead, I believe that we initiate polite speech out of common courtesy, an acknowledgement of human connection and a reaffirmation of a relationship.
However, no matter how badly you intend to make a meaningful interaction out of an otherwise forgettable moment, asking another person, “how are you?” is not the most effective way to do so. The reality is that the other person is probably not interested or comfortable with sharing legitimate details about their life out in public on the sidewalk.
So, what is the point in asking others how they are doing when the results are so inconsequential? The first reason is that some of it just comes down to habit and expectation. I have been engaging in polite speech for so long that to train it out of me would be a challenge and I’m sure the same would apply to most of you.
The second reason that I ask others how they are is because I want to acknowledge the people on campus that I know and recognize. It feels good to be smiled at or waved to in passing. It makes you feel like you are not alone. But this inclusion effort is not specific to the question “how are you?” There are so many other ways to acknowledge someone’s presence and reconnect to them in passing via other phrases or interactions. Imagine instead using phrases such as “it’s good to see you!” or “I hope your day goes well!” or just a plain “hey (insert friend’s name)!” with a genuine smile. Not only are these phrases refreshing and different from what we are so used to hearing all over campus from every person we know, but they also actively contribute in a positive way to another person’s day.
You may ask, how does this all connect to imposter syndrome? Quite simply, asking people to answer a question that has a prescribed and expected response forces them into a tough position. When asked this question, an individual can conform to the normal flow of the interaction by responding with something like “good!” or “I’m doing well, thanks.” The problem with this conformity is that this response does not allow someone to express how they are truly feeling, thereby making the question purposeless.
The alternative is that they are honest with you and share both the positive and negative experiences, something that can make others uncomfortable in public situations.
A lot of the time, people end up conforming to the prescribed response to the question and this gives the impression that others have everything together and are doing well all the time. This isolates individuals, making them feel the need to internalize all their problems, ultimately giving the impression that everyone else is working harder and doing better.
In summary, it is not true that asking a friend how they are on the sidewalk is always bad, but it also does not accomplish anything. In my personal experience, if I really want to know how someone is doing, I will reach out to them over text or call to talk privately or find a time to meet up and chat for a bit. Doing so displays true care for friends and acquaintances and is worth more than a brief interaction in passing. Therefore, alternative methods of communication should be used in order to better build community and positively impact relationships.
My challenge for you? Alter your habitual interactions with others on the sidewalk to have more purpose. Work harder to make every conversation you have with a friend one that actively lifts them up and we’ll see where we get from there.