Friday, December 12, 2014

Neither Pangloss Nor Pollyanna

As a German citizen who came to the United States relatively late in life, I was initially struck by how much more positive thinking was valued in the United States than back in Europe. In Germany, if you asked how someone was doing, you would usually get a frank answer, such as “I didn’t sleep well last night,” or “My puppy got sick and it’s bothering me.” In America, I noticed how people would say, “I’m fine”—even if something was bothering them. I also noticed that people found it jarring when someone violated the unwritten rule of positivity.
Gabriele Oettingen*
Now, the United States may (or may not) be a hotbed of “positive thinking,” but Professor Oettingen's take on “I'm fine” as evidence of “widespread optimism” is foolish.**
First, let's examine the questions that elicit the answer “I'm fine.” They are the first things asked when we encounter someone (after, perhaps, “Hi” or “Hello”): “How are you?” or “How are things?” or “How are you doing?”*** These questions are not meant to be soul (or medical) searching probes; they are a conventional way of leading into the encounter ritual (we could just as well use bows or curtsies). The words are offered as a gesture of recognition of others, and receive a ritualized recognition response in return. After an initial exchange of “I'm fine”s, we can either go our separate ways (knowing that we have paid due respect to the other person) or continue the conversation in this direction or that.
When I answer “I'm fine” to the question “How are you?” I may do so for any of a number of reasons. Here are a few:
1--“I'm fine.”
2--”I'm not fine.” (see footnote 2)
3--“It's none of your business.”
4--“I'm not going to burden you with my problems.”
5--“If I tell you, then the conversation comes to a stop.”
6--“I don't want to talk about it.”
7--“If I tell you, then you'll tell me—and I don't really want to hear about it.”
8--“I'm in a hurry.”
9--“I don't like you.”
10--And most likely of all, it is, as noted above, just my conventional response to a conventional question.
Whatever the reason for the answer, it undoubtedly does not come from a deep wellspring of positivity and therefore to be taken as an indication of “widespread optimism.” (And, pace Professor Oettingen, “positivity” and “optimism” are not identical.)
Then again, perhaps we Americans should go all Teutonic in our responses to “How are you?” (“Wie geht es Ihnen?”**** if I remember my lessons correctly). I would just love to see my interlocutor's face when I reply, “I've got a fever in my left leg, and mange on my right.”
But, summing up, I have to think that the most honest reply to questions like “How are you doing?” is the standard one an uncle of mine would offer in advanced old age:
I'm doing the best I can.”
**And how about the gloomy Swedes? In a recent episode of a Swedish detective series that I saw, the chief detective, who had been showing lapses of concentration, responded with a defiant “I'm fine” to the question “How are you?” His reason: to hide a diagnosis of early Alzheimer's disease from the interlocutor, his boss.
***Cashiers at my favorite supermarket always ritually ask, “How are you?” Clearly, the expected response is “I'm fine” with no further elaboration.
I had a neighbor who gave tennis lessons; he'd greet you, “How're you hittin' 'em?” I suspect that a really optimistic answer would be “I'll be whipping Roger Federer's ass any day now.” Although more likely the response would be a middling “Not bad”--an example of the rhetorical device known as litotes, which achieves a positive by negating its opposite (though hardly as definitively strong as directly stating the positive).
****Literally, "How goes it with you?" 

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