If you ask, get ready for the response


How are you?

In English-speaking countries, we ask this question as part of our universal greeting. “Hi, how are you?”

We ask it in almost any situation. We greet our clients, bank tellers, flight attendants, waiters, and even the entire audience for keynote speeches with “hello, how are you?”

But we don’t usually expect (or want) to hear the real answer. Imagine a standup comedian on stage in front of thousands of people saying, “Hello, Los Angeles! How are you?” and hearing someone in the middle of the audience say, “Well, I’ve been kind of down. My job is unsatisfying, and I’m not really sure of my place in the world, you know?”

The expected reply is “Good, thanks, how are you?”

Isn’t it funny how this pandemic has changed that expectation? 

I’ve noticed in Zoom calls, online meetings, and even email and chat exchanges, everyone is expecting and giving actual answers. When I ask someone how they’re doing, I find myself naturally pausing for the real response. And I find the other person filling me in on emotions, troubles, successes. We connect. Last week I asked (through my mask) a farmer selling citrus at a local market how they were. I was surprised, and delighted, to hear details of how happy and grateful they felt to sell their fruit to grateful neighborhoods.

Interestingly, our renewed focus on the shared experience hasn’t transcended everywhere.

Marketing and communications strategists often talk about creating valuable experiences that can be shared by audiences, whatever the channel. They talk about the importance of making them emotional. Valuable. Connected.

But two emails I received from companies last week reminded me that sometimes this is just talk. The first came from a software company my business uses. It said, “Robert, how are you?  The news of the current crisis is changing every day, and we want you to know we’re here for you.” 

I responded, truthfully for that day, that I was feeling great, and that their software was performing well for me. I asked how they were doing, and their plans for the immediate future.

The response? I got an automated reply that said (no kidding) “Thank you for your customer service inquiry. Due to the current crisis, we are currently experiencing extremely long wait times. Please click here to download our newest app.”

The second email I received this week was from a publisher, thanking me for my continued subscription. It opened with  “Dear Subscriber, we’ve published more than 100 articles over the last week, compiled as a thank you to people like you – our subscribers. We want to know how you’re doing. We’re listening.”

So, I responded. “Thank you so much for asking. I’m not doing that great today. I’m feeling a little lost. Your content has been really helpful. How are you all doing?”

I’m still waiting for a response.

I admit that both of my responses were as much experiments in good content and communications as they were earnest inquiries. It’s easy – and not completely unfair – to assume that when marketers write things like “we’re listening,” “we’re here for you,” or “how are you doing?” it’s mostly rhetorical. Much like the comedian, lead singer, or keynote speaker, we’re speaking to an audience and not really expecting an answer.

But right now, in the midst of the very definition of a shared experience, it’s different. People may actually believe that we care. It would be good to remember that nobody cares how much you’re doing if you don’t do something that shows how much you care.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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