- Eye on Media
“Well, good afternoon, folks!” I greet the family entering the restaurant:
“Four for lunch? Would you like a booth or a table?”
A booth it is, and mom, pop and two cell-phone-addicted daughters fit it snugly. While I bring menus and ice water – with an “Excuse me, please,” for the girls whose frantic tapping on stunted little buttons makes them dangerously oblivious to my water glasses – the mother rears up, peers at me sharply over her reading glasses and snaps:
“AND – HOW – ARE – YOU – TODAY?”
“Ah – it could be worse, and you?”
“JUST – WONDERFUL – !!!” she states with a gusto as shrill as it sounds fake. This must be her passive-aggressive way of denouncing my failure to ask how SHE is. Which I compounded by failing to describe my own condition as JUST WONDERFUL.
I’m going to ignore this culture-clash, and simply try to be nice. But I have to come clean: I’m increasingly irritated by that American urge to mutter: “How are you?” at everybody, all the time. Even victims in their death throes are expected to moan back: “Just fine, and you?” Neither side ever means it. And if the dying victim has lost enough control to dwell on his symptoms and prospects, he can see his inquisitor think: “Oh crap, I’m sorry I asked.”
Even so, NOT asking may cause people like this self-righteous matron to think you are rude. In actuality the American “How are you?” is the functional equivalent of “Buenos Dias” or “Guten Abend” or “Bonjour messieurs-dames” in other lands. A Frenchman entering a public place may even skip the bonjour entirely, and just say Messieurs-dames. All those utterances, the human equivalents of neighborhood dogs conducting mutual butt-sniffing, achieve the same thing. They recognize that the other person exists. Only in America may “Good afternoon” be judged inadequate, for its failure to solicit meaningless personal revelations. Lord, protect me from pompous females.
We’re starting to get busy, and between customers I try to help Adam in the kitchen. The kitchen phone rings. “You need to get rid of that thing,” Adam reminds me. “Get a cell phone like mine. They don’t call you on those.” He’s talking about the telephone sales calls we get every day. And he is right; they are a bigger nuisance than the “AND-HOW-ARE-YOU-TODAY?”- addicts.
I pick up the phone, but for about two seconds I hear nothing. Experience has taught us that this is a sure sign of a boiler-room operation with the sales pitch about to be launched, either by a live person or a recording. And I don’t know which is more annoying. I’m about to hang up when a live, youngish woman’s voice comes on:
“Hi, how are you?”
Oh great, this character has decided to apply the latest wisdom about making successful sales calls. I read it the other day, in a piece by some self-anointed cold-call-expert:
“When we start our cold calls with a mini-pitch about who we are and what we have to offer, we’ve introduced sales pressure right away. . . . So instead, start your conversation by focusing on a need or issue you know the other person is likely facing. Step into their world and invite them to share whether they’re open to exploring possible solutions with you.”
I knew it, I knew it! I knew I would see the day when good old American salesmanship would mate with touchy-feely encounter-group notions. Adam doesn’t seem to need my help right now, so I’ll waste a minute by focusing on an issue I’m facing, and to find out if this person is “open to exploring possible solutions.” For my HOW-ARE-YOU issue. I’m holding my fingers over the mouthpiece:
“Huh? What was that? This connection is BAD! Can you speak up?”
“HOW ARE YOU?”
“HOW ARE YOU TODAY?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’m just asking.”
“But why? Are you selling health insurance? Or life insurance? Graveyard plots, maybe?”
“I’m not selling anything.” Ha-ha, I’d like to get a nickel for every salesman who’s told me that.
“We have a policy against giving out that kind of information. Do I know you?”
“My name is Sue, and how are you?”
“Well, Sue, you’re being kind of fresh, aren’t you? Calling perfect strangers on the phone to find out how they are? It’s a good thing my wife doesn’t know about this, or you’d be in trouble, young lady!”
CLICK, and the line goes dead. Well, that worked.
This is one brief chapter from Wim de Vriend’s recently published book “EVERYBODY’S WAR – People who rebuilt their lives, and enemies who became friends, in the long shadow of World War II.” Many of the forty chapters in the 380-page book are consdierably longer than this one, and are about the ideological conflicts that lead to war.