Monday, November 12, 2007

how are you?

I lived in Eastern Europe for a while a few years back. I was fortunate enough to get a great job there, despite my lack of knowledge of any local language and/or culture. Although in time I managed to learn some of the language, breaking into the culture was much more difficult.

At first, my team (all locals) viewed me with some suspicion. I found out later that this wasn't because of my habit of falling asleep during meetings (it was a bit of a party time in my life) or my obsession with finding absolutely any television programming in English (even though I never watched tv at home). It was because I was a crazy English speaker who smiled way too much and asked everyone, "How are you?"

In a short time, I figured out that the smiling thing was kinda bad, but it took one of my team members to explain to me that the "How are you?" thing was actually offensive. As she explained, one should never ask that question unless one is prepared to hear the answer... in full. In her mind, people like Americans were too quick to pretend they cared when they really didn't. I thought about it and realized that she was right: I actually didn't care how most people were. After a while, once my mindset had shifted, it was hard for me to come home to things that had seemed normal to me before. Walking into any store like Gap or Pottery Barn was an assault on the senses. All of these people I didn't know were pretending to care how I was. Fakes and phonies.

Well, last week I seem to have forgotten this valuable lesson. A colleague who I barely know (I'm racking my brain trying to think of her last name right now and I can't) came by my desk to ask my opinion on one of her projects. I turned around and said, without thinking, "Hey, how are you?"

Big mistake. Over 40 minutes later I had heard the full story of her mother's health problems, which South American region she was in, what the insurance company had tried to get away with, what her sister was doing to try to get her mom home, and how her dad was holding up.

I don't want you to think I'm heartless. Hey, if your mother's sick I'm all about the sympathy. My parents aren't young and my dad hasn't been in the best of health. Lots of people in my life have died, especially recently, and I know that's tough. But I'm not sure you should be telling someone you barely know the long version of your story.

But it's still my fault for asking. I need to get back in touch with the Eastern European in me. No more random "How are you?"s.



SunnyShine note: Ugh.

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