“Are you doing well?” “Did you have a good weekend?” “Are you loving your new job?” “Are you and ______ enjoying your time together?” These questions are all innocent enough. We may not mean anything by the way we ask them. Culturally, it may just be how we’re used to asking how a person is doing, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with asking them that way. Still, we need to realize, when we ask a “yes/no” question leading towards the positive answer, we may be communicating we don’t want to hear a real answer. Furthermore, however unintentionally, we may be limiting the other person’s room to answer in the negative.
Still, in most contexts, we don’t have the personal background. So, if we really want to know how others are… we should ask them. Sure, just asking “How is your day going?” rather than “Are you having a good day?” isn’t going to guarantee that they’ll feel we want to know. It won’t necessarily adjust our personal attitudes as to whether we feel like listening, either. Also, besides the actual words we use, there are plenty of other factors that affect how we ask, how others perceive the question, and how they’ll want to respond. However, leaving the question open-ended will at least give them the opportunity to genuinely respond. When we ask a question like, “Did you have a good break?” it sounds like we want a quick response and to get on to whatever’s next.
The “Did you have a good break?” question sticks in my mind because it’s one that’s asked a lot in college. When I was in college, the truth was usually that my breaks were not good… but I never responded that way. I’d have to explain why and other people wouldn’t understand, so I simply said “yes” because it seemed that’s all they wanted to hear. If I answered “no,” it got complicated, and their question suggested to me they didn’t care to know or listen.
Further, suggesting the positive response in our questions can make it seem as though the other person has to answer that way. If we ask, “Are you enjoying being a new mom?”–it can make the the other person feel they can’t answer, “No,” or, “Actually, right now it’s really hard.” Instead, it can pressure her to say she’s loving it even if she’s not… otherwise, she might feel like she’s complaining (or just that saying “no” would somehow be wrong). She misses an opportunity to share and we miss an opportunity to support her.
In my first year of college, people would often say to me, “Aren’t you loving college?” Their kids had loved it, so I guess that meant I had to love it, too. But, I didn’t. How was I supposed to tell them that? Responding that I didn’t love it made me feel like a jerk or like I was somehow abnormal for having trouble adjusting and just plain not liking many aspects of college life. It made whatever I was struggling with just feel worse.
Just in case this sounds like I think everyone has negative, unhappy responses (or like that’s all I ever have), let me reassure you that isn’t the case. Even so, whether a person responds: “I’m really having a hard time,” or “Today has been amazing!”–wouldn’t you rather give people the chance to express how they’re actually feeling rather than limiting them to a “yes” or “no” that fits inside the box of your expectations?