Just as there are cliché phrases, there are also cliché questions. I call these crutch questions. They are the ones often asked without any thought or care as to the answer. Traditionally they are just polite salutations. It kind of gets me that folks who make a big deal about not using clichés don’t seem to raise the same fuss about these crutch questions. Not only are we usually unaware of what we are really asking, we are equally uninterested in the answers. So, let’s dive in.
How do you do?
Granted this is a formal greeting we don’t hear as much anymore. I used to hear this all the time while growing up. It was very popular with my parents’ generation. While I realize that it’s a fancy way of asking “how are you,” it always strikes me as odd. How do I do what? Roller skate? Make pancakes? Of course, being a natural born smart aleck, you would expect no other response.
How are you?
It makes a bit more sense to ask this one, especially if you are addressing a smart aleck like me. But even this one has its shortfall.
Once in her later years, someone asked my mother “how do you do?” She replied, “Do you want the truth or the polite answer?” The person making the query wisely opted for the polite answer. Being late for church at the time, you can understand why. But isn’t that really what we want when we ask that one? The only time we really don’t want the polite answer is when we’re the ones answering the question. Make it about us and we’re all in.
How’s your mama and them?
This is one we Southerners use on occasion. Another form of “how are you,” we’re looking for the polite answer. Taken literally this could cause some awkward moments. In my case, I would have to reply they’re all singing in the choir eternal worshiping God in ways we can’t even imagine. While more inspiring than “she’s been dead since 2003,” it could put others ill at ease. So, like everyone else, I just stick with “fine and you.”
Is it hot enough for you?
Has anyone ever responded in the negative? Since this is usually only asked when temperatures are close to or over triple digits, I doubt it. Likely there are those who ask the opposite when it gets cold, although I’ve never heard it. Maybe the first person to ask such a question was the part of the Byrd expedition to Antarctica that didn’t return. I’m guessing he was sent adrift on an iceberg to search for an answer. At least that’s what I would have done to him.
Sometimes we ask the right crutch question at the wrong time. It happens when we put our brains on auto pilot. One case that comes to mind involves having dinner out. We were with a group of friends. They all ordered red meat (steaks and burgers) and got the question “how would you like that cooked?” I ordered the chicken and got the same question. “Completely” was my reply.