“What’s Happening?”

We’ve all heard this salutation in our daily exchanges. It almost never fails to fill me with an uncomfortable apprehension. Yeah, I know it’s small talk, but it puts me on the horns of a dilemma I really haven’t learned to resolve.

For starters, it’s a question. You first have to decide if it’s a serious one. Don’t laugh. How many times have you said or heard something like “How ya doin’?”, knowing full well from the context that no actual information is going to be exchanged. It’s really just another way of saying, “hello”.

For me, “what’s happening?” seems at¬†least a couple of rungs along the “is actual information required?” continuum but I’m not entirely sure why. So, if you decide it’s a serious question, to answer “nothing” suggests a surreal obliviousness to the world around you. Or, it casts the implication you might be a completely inert person with no actual “life” underway.

A flip side to keeping it minimal or returning a null set is to think in terms of actually answering the question. I don’t know about you, but it seems like real work to me; cataloguing noteworthy events in your life, deciding when the last time this person got an update (when was that?) and then succinctly summarizing those things in an interesting way.

One thing that wends its way into the equation is the calculation of what I call the potential for reciprocation. Ever been through the exercise of dutifully going through the “complete” exercise, only to find that, in response to the “and you?” part, you get nothing (literally). Doesn’t seem fair – all that work, and no reciprocal information. So, ultimately, you need to handicap the risk the effort won’t be appreciated and returned.

When I perceive the risk to be high –¬†although it’s not a totally satisfactory solution – especially if I don’t know the person very well, I sometimes just ask a reply question that amounts to a non sequitur. Although this can leave an impression that I’m not facile with the English language, it often occasions an uncomfortable pause, followed by a hasty retreat.

So, how did you enjoy that carbon dioxide protest rally? You understand the problem, then?

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