Vanity Faire  

Posted by Jonathan E Johns

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So I was talking with a friend of mine recently, and this friend shared with me some troubling news. Now, to be fair, I did ask this friend, “How are you?” and I did genuinely mean to know how they were. But as most of us know, there is a limit, or line, or box, which we do not enjoy straying beyond.

For example, if I were to ask Joe Blow, “How are you?” and Joe were to tell me about his terribly infected, pus-filled, greenish hued, ingrown toenails... well, we are now outside the box of common comfort. I might sincerely want to know how Joe is doing, but, hey, perhaps I should have defined what is inside, and outside the box here. Joe might have also replied that he had recently discovered a repressed memory of killing a bunch of neighborhood animals when he was a child, and had recently fantasized about having sex with old people dressed as characters from Disney films. Again, I truly do care about Joe, but there has to be a limit to what I care to know about.

I think the real issue here is not that I don't care about Joe's issues at the moment, but that I am not always prepared for a good response to this level of intimate information. How am I supposed to reply to this information? It doesn't make me as uncomfortable to hear the news Joe has to share, or even to imagine Joe and some Geriatric dressed as Goofy recreating the Kama Sutra, but rather, how Joe is going to react to my reaction to this new personal information.

So in reflection, do we ask the question because we truly care, or do we ask because we want someone to think we truly care? I suppose it depends on the relationship, right? If the person is a very intimate friend or family member, well, heck, we can talk about all kinds of things comfortably and respond without too much fear of rejection. But some random person we see at the office maybe once a month, well, let's set some ground rules; I care, but not that much.

Most of us know how to respond when asked this question, “How are you?” and we usually expect similar restraint from those of whom we ask it. How we respond to the biggies, like the aforementioned toenails, seems fairly easy, but when we step into the gray, well, I think we all have differing choices and decisions.

I think I have a problem with the 'empathy' response. I tend to try to comfort others with my own stories of how I have it it as bad, or worse, than they. Now, If I get the 'toenail' response, I usually swallow back the bit of bile which has crept up the back of my throat, and try to change the subject. If I get the sexually deviant response, I might try to steer the conversation into something even more creepy to knock my 'opponent' off guard. (Think, “Oh really? My grandpa and I used to do that.”) but when the gray area categories pop up, I instinctively tell a similar story about myself. “You dropped your Ipod into the toilet at home? I know just how you feel, once I dropped my Ipod into a Port-O-Potty at the county fair.”

So, is this a disguised one-up-man-ship competition thing? Or am I sincerely trying to make them feel better by making them realize they could have it worse? Probably a little of both. My family tends to tell horror stories like other people talk about, well, whatever it is that normal people talk about. One time, I was at home getting ready for work, and a family member of mine called me and told me they had just heard about some guy somewhere who had backed out of his driveway and run over, and subsequently crushed to death, his 3 year old child. My family's way of saying, “Hi, How are you?” I guess I could accept this, if, say, I had a bad habit of backing up without looking, or, maybe, I had a driveway. But since I had neither, my mind struggled with trying to figure out why this information, upon reflection, was connected to me in my family members mind, and why they felt compelled to immediately call me and share this information with me. This kind of horror story sharing is an age-old pastime at my family gatherings. Some of my siblings take great efforts to share the worse case scenario with everyone upon hearing the seemingly most inane bit of news. Once, a family member commented that it was so cute how little tykes walk almost as if they were drunk, which gained this response; “Lots of kids start to show signs of polio at that age, and look like they can't walk right. It's a very serious thing, and you should have that child tested for polio.” Imagine the look upon the face of the person making an “Oh, that's so cute!” comment about babies walking, and getting this tragic horror story as a response.

So it should be no mystery where I get my replies from. “You lightly burned your shin on your motorcycle? Wow, that's too bad, I knew this guy, who read about this guy who had his leg amputated because his leg got infected after receiving fourth degree chemical burns in an explosion at work. You should probably get that looked at, maybe get a prescription for penicillin or something. And don't rule out amputation, if the infection spreads to your brain, you could go insane and have to have a lobotomy.”

The empathy part, I am truly at a loss for where it comes from. I guess I want to really care a lot, and most of the time, I really do, but do not know how to reply. It might be the Capricorn in me that feels a simple reply, “You burned your leg? Sorry about that, it must hurt.” is just not enough. I am working on it, though. I have a running dialogue in my own head that keeps saying “SHUT UP!!!” over and over and over.

Combine the Empathy response, and the horror response, and, well, you get, me. I tend to exaggerate, I tend to be sarcastic, I tend to try to one-up people, I try to be the class clown, and draw attention away from your tragedy, and towards my comedy. “You spilled your coffee? Once I dropped an entire Mocha container on the floor at Starbucks, it splashed all over me, and had enough velocity to hit the ceiling! It left a stencil-like oval outline of my head, though, on the ceiling. It took me like two hours to clean it up.” Why can't I just say something simple, like, “Wow, that kinda sucks.”

It is almost like I am looking for an opportunity to 'perform'. It makes me wonder if there are members of my family with a virtual Rolodex of stories waiting for the right story to be told, so that they can pull out the proper response card. It also makes me wonder if they have poorly titled these cards, or have perhaps lowered the standards of relatability. “You tripped on one of your kids' toys, and almost fell down the stairs? I read about a kid who made Kool-Aid with salt instead of sugar...”

Either way, I know where I get my influences, I know I have tried to moderate my own empathy/horror responses, I know when I ask “How are you?” I mean it, because when I don't really care how you are, I'll just say “Hey, 'sup?” I know I will always feel my responses are inferior, and I know I will always try to make the other person feel better, somehow.

And I promise, right here, right now: I will try to hide my eye-rolling from you, when I hear your toenail story.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 24, 2009 at 1:42 PM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

2 comments

dude, i am SO sorry i shared that toenail story with you now. and for the record, it wasn't a goofy suit, it was daisy duck. i love me some daisy duck...especially l'orange.

see, i do it too. good post, nonetheless.

July 30, 2009 at 1:25 PM

You, sarcastic? I never noticed. I think you are the result of generations of perfect genetic breeding.
So, how are you? :)

August 3, 2009 at 9:41 PM

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