If there’s one thing to be said about British Culture, it would be our faux-but-necessary exchange of greetings displayed as surface-level optimism masquerading the real pervading feelings of pessimism bubbling on the underside.
There are various ways to communicate different senses of faux-optimism and each different relative to the ‘true’ pessimism of each person. Yet nonetheless, every greetings exchange – once inspected – looks and feels like an inner repressive struggle to properly convey ones own ‘true’ sense of self.
One of course doesn’t really desire the answer to the question How Are you? in full except just an acknowledgement of the question posed in the first place. And usually, the acknowledgement takes the form of a mirror, reiterating the question posed onto us back to the questioner. Whats more, depending on the person, instead of ending the exchange with the acknowledgment of the question by way of saying I’m Fine, the original questioner might proceed to actually answer in full, what usually is never answered, to the How Are You?, effectively using his fellow people as a springboard or mirror to his own advantage.
Although asking How Are You? is a vague question with little intent on knowing the answer in full, and so usually means How Are You At This Very Moment In Time, the questioner acts as analyst in practice with hopes of better understand who they themselves are reflected in the eyes of others. No wonder such a question is consistently posed through out ones life as it takes quite literally ones entire life to figure out just how one is really, truly feeling. And it is this inability, acknowledged by all, that confines any answer to one of I’m Fine, OK, and Good etc. (Note: any or all answers are frequently positive masking true negative feelings that one realizes one is unable to fully expand in the conversation alone. Even extreme positive answers such as Great!, Amazing, I’m so Happy, are also not conveyed as any chance to fully expand on them are limited). Because of this inability to truly speaks ones mind in light of civility, customs and time, a paradox emerges whereby even expressing feelings of negative or extreme positive emotion are to be met negatively by others. As if either negativity or excessive positivity is a very un-British thing to display and ought to be repressed and hidden from view away from others in fear of catching it like a cold or becoming bitter and resentful of ones own inability to accurately express ones own positive feelings. Britishness, then, by these standards is a very grey, moderate, pragmatic and neutral disposition or attitude. Contrasted with America where having a shrink/therapist is commonplace, allowing for the ability to speak openly about ones emotions, in Britain it is virtually unheard of – it is what presumably family and friends and even strangers are for. The British people act as a communal therapy group.
Even if How Are You? allows for the flexibility of an answer, how might one respond to You OK?. What are the degrees of OK-ness that one can accurately convey? Similar to the inability of being able to adequately answer the complex How Are You? in any decent way we end up resorting to a simple I’m Fine, Thanks. You?. You OK? doesn’t allow for complexity nor for any chance of feelings of negativity – it is exclusively an exchange for people who are already feeling quite OK and therefore redundant as a question in the first place. Yet, as mentioned before, no answer is to really be met except for the acknowledgment of the exchanges of communication itself. In fact, You OK? has the subversive undertones of already presupposition that the other person is in fact not OK – Just as how you see a friend fall off a Bicycle and ask Are You OK? knowing full well that your friend has just literally fallen off a Bicycle and is anything but OK. Which is to say that the gesture of Are You OK? is really, “you are going to be OK”, “you will get through this momentary bad phase and come out of it triumphant”. Its the additional spirit of British Culture that everything in the end will all be alright. No wonder the British public took Bob Marley on board so well as “every little thing is gonna be alright!” is – like all great things British – an appropriated motto for our own country taken from another culture. And so, when you converge in the exchanges of OK’s, its not only a civil acknowledgement of each others existence, but that the acknowledgement is the consoling factor of letting yourself and others know that despite your repressive pessimism for life, everything is OK, we will all get through this together.