They were plainly dressed, the two women who knocked at my door. Their faces fervent. Good morning, said one. How are you? Let me stop you there, I said. What organisation are you with? We'd like to talk to you about how you deal with your problems, she said. Yes, I said, but what organisation are you with? We're Jehovah's Witnesses. Thank you, I said, closing the door as she thrust a pamphlet about the end of the world through the gap. I resented their presence on my doorstep. I did not want to discuss the annihilation of humankind on a fine Saturday morning. And, most especially, I did not want to tell them how I was.
But then neither do I want to tell market researchers, dairy owners, or plumbers how I am. And neither, I suspect, do they want to know. To know I am pre-menstrual, feeling sexy in my new jeans, furious with my husband after last night's bender. Apparently I am not alone. These past weeks I have received several emails on the subject. Bev is irked when asked, "And what are you up to with the rest of your day?" "Being polite," she says, "I give a quick answer that straightaway makes me feel boring."
Gillian is more irked by the response than the question. "I have found when you meet people in the street it is FATAL to say, 'How are you?' Invariably you get a history of ailments. Alas my 10-minute dash out to get a bottle of milk can sometimes take an hour or more depending on whether I keep my mouth shut and only say a simple 'Hello'!" Kathryn suggests while most people will reply "Fine", in truth they mean: "Frazzled, insecure, neurotic, emotional".
Lyn is quite vexed, muddled even, by the etiquette of it all. "You know," she writes, "a hitherto stranger won't want to know about your bruised second toe so you say, 'Really well, thanks,' or, with less enthusiasm, 'Not bad thanks', and don't mention your toe at all. If, in time, you do get to know them, you may then mention the injured toe, thereby risking a reputation of dishonesty since you had, in the first instance, said 'Really well, thanks'."
How much more simple, I sometimes think when walking my dog at the park, if we all just sniffed each other's bums. We live in a casual age, and this, surely, is a good thing. But with this relaxation of formalities our interactions have taken on a confusingly personal tone. I have no desire to be rude, yet I have no wish to strike up a relationship with everyone I meet, either. When, say, paying for a tank of gas I am friendly, happy to briefly discuss the weather, but not interested in getting into my plans for the weekend. I ask someone how they are only if I genuinely want to know, and I tell someone how I am only if I know they actually care.
Right of reply
Last week a reader wrote of feeling bothered by hearing a farmer protest her poverty when so many have so little. Here a farmer explains why farmers can feel "poor": "With the third season of low income upon us we have had no holiday, we have let a very highly paid staff member go to replace them with a less experienced one, which comes with risk, and we farm lighter, hungrier cows, which has NO upside. We feel poor because of the responsibility we have towards our staff, animals and environment and what the lack of money means for these things. By no means do we think we are not wealthy. We had choices and opportunity and we have taken responsibility for those, we have made mistakes and had some good fortune. But we have never been ungenerous or cruel or stood in the way of someone trying to improve their lot.
"There are many farmers for whom the downturn means decisions as I have described, and worse. But it saddens me our (collective) situation is so poorly understood. The stress can be a killer - I know from personal experience - and I know how lucky I am, but I also know that 'poor' is a relative term and we should be very careful not to judge who is, and is not, morally poor."
Next week I want to talk about food.