Saturday, January 20, 2007

"I'm fine. How are you?"

Today, I was in the grocery store and the checkout lady said, “How are you doing today?” with a chipper smile. This is typical of what is currently fashionable in customer service. There are really only two answers to this greeting/question that will not make one come across as a curmudgeon, which are “I’m fine. How are you?” or “Doing just fine, thank you”. There are slight variations on the acceptable reply (“I’m doing fine, how ‘bout yourself?” has a bit of a Southern flavor), but they are slight variations on what is the same basic reply.

Of course, there is slacker way of saying “’Tsup?”, which is short for “What’s up?”. The different between “’Tsup?” and “How are you today?” is that “’Tsup?” has become just another word for “Hi” and doesn’t demand a response. (Those from older generations might not know this and respond to “’Tsup?” with “Oh, I’m doing just fine how ‘bout yourself?”)

My problem with someone asking me “How are you doing today?” when I am in motion and therefore not able to sit still with them, is that I am a person who is often melancholy and ruminating on sundry problems in life and in the world. As such, I always feel that I am being dishonest by saying “I’m fine” without being able to elaborate on how I’m actually doing. Each thing that I write about is the product of having spent a great deal of time ruminating about it, and I have organized my life around the need to ruminate, and I go to great lengths to give myself the time and space to ruminate. When I am placed in a social situation where the only acceptable reply is “I’m fine. How are you?” or “Doing just fine, thank you”, I feel boxed into a situation where I am required to be less authentic than I want to be. I feel that a one-size-fits all idea of politeness is being foisted upon me that doesn’t allow me a gracious way to avoid having to reciprocate.

While some people will know exactly what I’m talking about, there are many people, including some Christians, who will read this and think that I’m being ungracious for feeling this way, and that I am being rude and un-curteous, or worse, un-Christian when I do not respond to "How are you doing?" when I am being asked while in motion by a stranger. For the Christians in this category, they have a high value for a particular idea of Christian hospitality that they have projected into what they consider to be polite social practice. It is these Christians who consider it an essential act of hospitality to ask someone how they are doing, even if it is being asked “on the run” where the only possible non-rude reply from the other person is “I’m fine. How are you?” or “I’m doing fine, thank you”. For these Christians, someone who does not reply with one of these two replies is being anti-social, and from a Christian perspective, is expressing inhospitality and ingratitude toward the other’s hospitality.

I have known Christians who take it a step further, who consider it a mark of ingratitude to God to not be able to say “I’m doing great!” when asked. To these Christians, if one is truly living in the knowledge of all the blessings that the Gospel has endowed him with, he should be able say “I’m blessed!” anytime, anywhere. Furthermore, “I’m great!” is supposed to elicit a reply from another person, “Great? Why are you great?” as a way to invite him into an evangelistic conversation.

Needless to say that I am not among that group of Christians. While our need to be grateful to God is a very important truth that we Christians must meditate on, it is by no means an aspect of truth that we must dwell on to the exclusion of other aspects of truth. Turning one’s gratitude toward God into a code of politeness can be used to question the gratitude of those Christians who have a different rhythm of relating to God that does not fit the social code. While I don’t begrudge Christians for their practice of expressing their gratitude toward God in the context of a code of social politeness, I am wary of it.

I have a supreme value for being totally honest to a degree that can offend the sensibilities of certain Christians who have a premium on being nice. As for being polite, I do value politeness and courteousness, but I don’t believe that love, truth and politeness are necessarily the same thing all the time, though they do overlap. I hold that politeness must be balanced with the need to be totally honest and constantly reckoning with all truth. It is from this value system that I have a looser idea of how “politeness” fits in with Christian love. For me, I have a value for being polite, but it needs to be flexible construct for different people and situations, and cannot be done in a formulaic, one-size-fits-all sort of way.

I am a person who wants to make sure there is room for people to be melancholy. I am convinced that joy is the union of truth and pleasure, and that one must frequently go through the difficult process of grappling with truth in order to get to the pleasure that is joined with truth at the other end. I am convinced that this is part of what it means for one to “pick up one’s cross daily” to find joy that lies on the other side of the cross. Even as I believe that this is true, I need to be mindful of not wanting to shame Christians into being melancholy and more than I want un-melancholy Christians to shame me out of being melancholy. I recognize that delving into the realm of the melancholy is a different journey for every person.

This puts me at odds with a culture wherein “happiness” is not understood as being something related with the task of coming to terms with difficult truth. The “pursuit of happiness” as “happiness” is understood by many in our culture is a pursuit that does not have room for melancholy. The pursuit of joy, however, does involve the experience of the melancholy. In the context of continually seeking the union of truth and pleasure, joy and melancholy are like two halves of an oscillating sine wave one giving way to the other continually. By my reckoning, the act of placing another person in a situation where the only socially acceptable reply is "I'm fine" is an act of prosecuting a particular view of the nature of happiness that is at odds with the rhythm of being melancholy. This is true quite apart from whether the person asking "How are you doing?" as good intentions.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish conservative talk show host who I frequently listen to, says that we have a moral obligation to be happy. To Dennis, projecting unhappiness into the world is equivalent to having bad breath. While I accept this idea in regard to one who is cronically complaining, I don’t accept this idea in regard to one who is not smiling or not replying “I’mfinehowareyou?” while being asked on the run. Having written a book, Happiness is a Serious Problem, Dennis Prager presents an idea of happiness that is much more in the realm of joy as I have defined it than the idea of “happiness” that most people harbor. Dennis’ idea of happiness is one that recognizes the role that squarely facing difficulty has in ultimately being happy.

That said, I am not capable of projecting a smile everywhere I go. Perhaps this is a matter of personality. Some people ruminate less that others and some can keep their ruminations more hidden. Perhaps Dennis Prager is among those who can operate publicly with a smile much of the time. As for me, I am an introverted person who needs room for melancholy and I wear my ruminations on my sleeve.

When I am around certain chipper people I feel as though I have stepped into a “melancholy free zone” where I feel that claims are being made on my emotions. When someone at the check-out line asks “So how are you doing today?”, I often feel as though I am being presented with an imposing form of peppiness that is openly challenging me to match that peppiness, putting my melancholy on the spot and challenging me to reply properly, lest I be exposed as a shmuck who responds with a shrug of silence. I also know that the checkout lady doesn’t intend her question to be taken in this way, but her intent on the matter does not negate the effect – my melancholy is still being put on the spot.

One could argue that I need to be kind to the people who need to perform those tough custormer service jobs and honor the good intentions of the check-out lady, even if I don't agree with the philosophy of happiness from which "How are you doing?" emanates. I, however, do work a day job that requires customer service, so I know it from the inside. Whenever I see the "high beams" presented to me when I am the customer, I can hear the echoes of the same customer relations seminar that I had to listen to as an employee. It is for this reason that there is a strong inclination in me, when I am operating a customer, to affect the climate that I must operate in as an employee. As an employee and as a person, I’m a fan of being professional and courteous, but I dislike the practice of what I feel is the act of imposing peppiness on others.

There is also a slightly sinister element that I sense when employer is trying to create an environment that demands grinning smiles and that judges employees on how well they turn on the “high beams” when they greet and smile. At work, I went through a seminar recently where they emphasized projecting happiness and smiles and the practice of asking “how are you doing to today?” type questions to people as they entered and exited. Needless to say, this seminar made me queasy. As a person inclined to melancholy, I am acutely aware that it takes an extra level of emotional organization for me to produce a smile – I must first believe that everything is right with the world. Sometimes I really believe it and I’m able to smile. However, most of the time I can’t put out of my mind all that I see that is wrong with the world. When I feel the pressure to smile against my melancholic inclinations, I’m feel that I am being made to force my thoughts into the “happy worldview” in order to produce the “happy emotions” in order to produce the smile. As this happens, I feel a pressure to ignore/suppress the part of my consciousness that is ruminating on difficult things. That is where my conscience steps in, and will not allow me to have those difficult things shoved out of my mind.

I can understand the therapeutic benefit that suppressing dark thoughts and imposing a “happy worldview” on one’s psyche can have for some people some of the time. In the best sense of this idea, having a “happy worldview” is the practice of putting a positive spin on things and looking at the bright side. While this can be a good practice, it would violate me to have to do it apart from the rhythm of dealing with the melancholy side of life. Maybe this sounds a tad strong, but as a melancholy person who needs to ruminate on difficult things, I feel that being made to smile against the inclinations of my conscience is like being subjected to a form of brainwashing. I feel that I am being forced to organize my emotions into the “happy worldview” at the threat of losing my livelihood.

So as a consumer buying groceries at the check out line, my act of not replying “I’m fine thanks, how are you?” is my attempt to using my power – albeit in a very small way -- as a consumer to thwart a system that is built on a one-size-fits-all view of politeness, which is based on a view of happiness that I am at odds with. I feel that I if I can help establish different expectations of management in favor of melancholy while I am a consumer, I can affect the expectations of management in favor of melancholy as an employee. Perhaps the checkout lady thinks that I am being a curmudgeon and that I’m being militant in my melancholy. I’m not trying to be rude to her, rather I’m trying to make a statement against a system that is pressuring her to behave in a certain way to conform to a certain idea that is in vogue in the frantic effort to attract customers. Perhaps she doesn’t feel this instruction from management as “pressure” because she doesn’t have a melancholic personality, but I do.

I can understand the point that enforcing a code of over-achieving peppiness among employees is a way to prevent employees from being overly rude and obnoxious (as in karate, one must aim beyond the brick to break the brick). I can also understand the argument that the majority of the culture is not melancholy and enjoys being asked “how are you doing today” by strangers. I can also understand the point that asking an un-melancholy person to be aware of when they are in the presence of a melancholy person and “tone down” the peppiness is often asking too much. However, I react to over-achieving peppiness because underneath it is the whiff of economics-induced conformity, and I don’t want the marketplace to make conformist demands on my emotions. I want to at least try to influence the management trend of promoting over-achieving peppiness in customer service towards something that is a little more subdued and that more openly recognizes diversity in personalities.

As for my job, I do an impeccable job in every other way so that I can get away with out having to gush and smile all the time. For me, I must convert the pressure that exists in my workplace to not be overly melancholy into an impetus to aggressively think and process my thoughts and observations so that they do not continue to weigh on me. For me, being able to organize what I am feeling and observing is the path to emotional freedom—it is the “half of the sine wave” of joy that comes out of embracing the melancholy in a disciplined way. As I’m able to do this, I am able to find the joy that is necessary to project an air of quiet confidence as an alternative to a grinning smile.

While I recognize that a certain amount of this pressure is unavoidable at work, it is this pressure that my introverted, melancholic self needs to be free from on my day off while at the grocery store. So to the checkout lady out there who asks “How are you doing today?” you will understand where I come from when I don’t respond.

1 comment:

Steve Blackwelder said...

I, too, feel either manipulated or attacked (depending on the severity of the situation) when people try to squeeze me into an emotionally narrow mold (borrowing from the J. B. Phillips paraphrase of Romans 12:1-2).

I'm a personal friend of Greg.