Such a simple question really. In Icelandic, the equivalent is “Hvað segirðu?” – What do you say. And what do you say? Do you say what’s really on your mind, that you are having a pretty bad day actually and aren’t feeling too hopeful about the future, or do you say something more socially acceptable and keep the conversation light and superficial? Most of us do exactly that. Somehow it doesn’t seem appropriate to dive into personal feelings with someone who merely asked a polite small-talk question and never signed up for receiving any details on our mental state.
Even though the question itself isn’t unique to the English language, I found myself having much more trouble responding to it in the U.S. than I had anticipated. In my native language, the answer felt straight forward and comfortable: “Allt gott” – as in, all is good. But once I had made the transition from my Icelandic everyday life to the U.S., I suddenly had to think about the exact words that would go into answering that little question, day in and day out. Saying, “I’m good” felt right, but only on days when it was actually true. Somehow it was harder to play along in the small-talk game when I had to think about what to say.
And on days when all wasn’t good, I took the chance to say something more honest, like “I’m alright”, or “Not too great actually”. It turned out to be a tricky dilemma. Do you give a false answer for the sake of upholding social norms, or do you say what’s up and risk being perceived as a complainer or responded to with great concern and sympathy? My answer – it depends. What I do appreciate is when people are able and willing to accept that sometimes things aren’t good, and that it’s okay to admit that to oneself and others. And even when we hear an honest not-so-good answer, it doesn’t mean the rescue team needs to be sent out to fix it. It’s just a sign the person is human.