Dan Osterman

Dan Osterman

Among the stock phrases littering the conversation of Massachusetts — including various uses of “all set” and the injunction to “Have a good one” — the most troublesome are the questions that are not questions: “How ya doin’?” or “How’s it goin’?” or “How are ya?”

In Massachusetts, these are used in passing, literally, to show the speaker truly cares about the other person, but not enough to stop and talk. Oddly, a simple greeting such as “Hello” creates more awkwardness than dismissive inquiries into another’s well-being because it’s generally too short to fill the time in which two people see each other, enter each other’s personal space and pass. “Hello” creates awkward silence, whereas by the time both parties have tossed out a “How ya doin’?” their backs are to each other and they’re on to fresh challenges.

The implication is that if there’d just been more time, they could have shared much information and many pleasantries. Alas, there wasn’t enough time.

There are few people who’d be pleased if their question was taken seriously, and, indeed, anyone who does so is running the risk of being considered tedious or intrusive: “I asked how he was doing and the guy started telling me about his surgery and divorce, fer Pete’s sake.” Fortunately, few are that gauche.

The question-as-shield is so effective that some consciously used it to escape conversations when in a hurry, dazzling unwitting victims blocking them from, say, getting to work. By the time they’ve formulated a response — usually they’re “fine” — the asker is down the hallway, halfway to the stairs. But at least they know someone cared enough to ask.

The downside is that when asked how you are, bristling becomes a reasonable response. If they really cared, you tell yourself, they wouldn’t have asked. This becomes even more acute when strangers to the area acknowledge the phenomenon of the unquestion to the point that, when asked how they are, askers must stress that they’re actually interested in knowing.