hello, and swasti astu

Here I am, in the trashbag aisle of the supermarket, when a 60ish guy with a muss of a beard brushes past and mutters it. “How ya doin’.”

I glance over. His left arm is clutching tupperware to his chest like a baby. Hanging from his left arm, a six-pack of coke.

He isn’t even looking at me, so I don’t respond. That would be senseless. That’s not part of his plan. He seriously doesn’t give a shit how I’m doin’.

I push my cart to the dairy case, toss in generic Greek yogurt and half-and-half. Then I push it into a checkout line and pull up to a woman with six-inch hoops hanging from her face. I’m temporarily mesmerized by them, wondering why on earth I don’t wear earrings that big, when she mutters it, too.

“How ya doin’.”

She isn’t looking at me, either. She gives about as much of a shit as the guy in the Hefty aisle. But I do my part.

Fine, I say. How ya doin’.

She still isn’t looking, but she does her part, too.


Well. Phew. Good thing we took care of this hollow but somehow gravely significant ort of social etiquette. But on the walk through the lot back to my car, rolling my yogurts along the tarmac, I wonder why we do it. And I wonder whether it wouldn’t be nice to do away with “How ya doin’s” — and all of its variations, from “How are you” to “What’s shakin'” — unless we actually mean it. Unless we actually want to hear a true response.

It wouldn’t be easy, given the habit-forming business of having mouthed “how are you” about 13 katroollion times since birth, or at any rate since we all started dumbly parroting everything we heard. It also wouldn’t be easy to process the answers we might get: “Thanks, my hemorrhoids flared up this morning, but they’re a little better now” or “Glad you asked! Last night I sucked face with the handsomest guy!” or “Actually, I was just bawling my eyes out in the bathroom; are my cheeks stained?”

Because, seriously, what if we’re not all fine? What if our worlds just came crashing down around our heads in little painful shards? I was discussing this with someone whose world had, in fact, recently imploded, and I was apologizing for the dumbassedly reflexive way I had opened our conversation with “how are you?” Is there anything more trivializing?

So I propose we come up with some viable alternative. I’ve tried “What’s going on?,” but that one feels brassy and belligerent. (Like, what do you think I’ve got goin’ on, man? And you got a problem with it?) “What’s up?” is too cutesy. “What’s happening!” is too late-1970s sitcom with canned yuks and bell bottoms. “How goes it” is a bit too brusque, and not much of an improvement over “how are you.” As for the previously noted “What’s shakin’,” the last time I deployed it on someone, the person looked at me as though I had just opened my mouth and spat out a giraffe.

My father Louis, a passionate amateur linguist, had a phrase he often used when he bumped into people on his daily constitutionals: “Swasti astu.” It means “bless you” or “peace be with you” in Balinese, and I think it’s dandy. I might start using it myself.

Anyone have any better ideas?

15 thoughts on “hello, and swasti astu

  1. Guilty, with an explanation. I use a variation at checkout counters — “how’ve you been?” It creates the feeling that we’ve spoken before (sometimes, we have). I still may not get an honest answer, but it does express an interest on my part. But you have me thinking that maybe after the first automatic response of “Fine,” I should add, “Really?” And see what happens.

  2. I don’t ask how someone is unless I’m actually paying attention to the person in a focused way. For those random encounters where acknowledgement is necessary but rote, I just say hi or hello or excuse me. But depending on the to whom…what’s up, what’s shakin’, what’s crackalackin’, how’s it going, how are you, how’ve you been, etc…they get all get used, and I’m looking at you when I use them.

  3. Strangers say it as a way of acknowledging each other’s presence; it’s a way of saying “I respect that you are another human in the world and I’m not unfriendly.” (Well, certain men do it for other reasons, but we’ll skip that for a bit.) I use “hi” or “hey” instead because, as you point out, I don’t care about the answer to “how are you” so saying that feels dishonest to me.

    An opening for friends is a whole ‘nother issue. My world has in fact imploded over the past few months and I have no idea how to respond to such questions now when they are asked as part of a social nicety by people who KNOW nothing is fine. I think that if we want to skip the fake small talk with our friends, that means we need to meet them with something genuine, and for most of us that takes some thought. Which is a good thing to put into our relationships but I for one am pretty slow at putting thoughts to words. I tend to use “It’s good to see you.”

    Using foreign phrases without having to go into an explanation seems awkward to me but you say it works for your father…

    • I love saying “hey” or “hi” or “hello” to strangers, but it never ends there; we have an impulse to carry the conversation further into “how are you” or its many variations. That’s where I’m lately looking for something else to say. And, yes, when I’m talking with people in the midst of great distress.

      As for my father, he said plenty else to people besides “swasti astu”! He was a gabby fellow. But he loved that Balinese expression and used it on everyone, always with a translation.

  4. Agree wholeheartedly, Amy; I seeem to be gravitating toward one of two greetings: either a sincere “Hey!” (which offers no content and is at least honest) or an ironic/sarcastic “How the hell are ya!” which is usually received with a smile, a laugh, and a resonably polite and accurate answer …

  5. Amy—

    We once had a friend, Helle, who when asked “”How are you today?” by telecommunicators and telefundraisers she’d tell them.

    “Thank you for asking,” she told them once. “The strangest thing happened this morning. I went to touch my toes today and I fell down. I had to crawl to the bed, claw my way up to my knees . . . ” By the time she was done explaining her accident, the caller had hung up. They didn’t have much time, or patience, for real-life answers. Another thing I read, which has stuck with me, is that people who do more than chit-chat are much happier than those who just chit-chat. All the more reason for real conversations.

    The problem, I find, is that when people ask me how I am, I assume most really don’t have the time to really hear what’s going on, or don’t want to know. Telling the truth is a form of intimacy that they haven’t bargained for, and to be honest, neither have I. (Could you imagine the horror of having to answer those people in the frozen food aisle how they are?) Truth-telling is an intimacy you don’t want with everyone. “Swasti astu” is a well-wishing, and requires no reply. Isn’t that a casual kindness that everyone can appreciate?

    Love your blog!


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