I was recently reading this blog post by The Happy Talent about why people need to stop asking other people, “are you okay?” and I’ve come to the conclusion that I agree with her.
In fact, it forced me to acknowledge that this comes up pretty often for me. I don’t know precisely why, though I have some guesses. I am naturally extremely pale, which our tan-loving culture associates with being ill. I don’t wear makeup on most days, and a woman without makeup is often accused of looking tired. When I’m thinking hard or imagining something (which is often) my distracted expression looks like concern. And although I’m not shy like I was as a kid, I am on the quiet and introverted side.
For these reasons, I get asked if I’m okay a lot.
My default response is to immediately grin and give an enthusiastic, “I’m great – how are you?”
Essentially, I treat it exactly the same as though I’d been casually asked how I was doing.
Which puts the person who asked in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that they thought I looked pale/tired/concerned or was being too quiet and unsmiling. Since they don’t want to admit any of those things, they simply respond that they’re okay too, and everyone moves on.It’s amusing at times to watch people flounder over my response, but also every time someone asks me, “are you okay?” I don’t feel cared for, instead I feel thrown off balance and slightly bummed out about my appearance. I immediately think, crap – do I look that bad today? What’s wrong with the way I look today? I thought I looked okay. Crappity crap crap crap. It’s a reminder that I’m too pale, that I’m stubbornly not wearing socially approved female cosmetic enhancements, that I’m overweight, and that I’m no longer a fresh faced twenty-something.
I would much prefer a sincere, “hey, how are you today?” That question is a polite invitation to share how I’m doing, or not share as per my preference. “Are you okay?” on the other hand is a completely unsolicited, out-of-the-blue opinion that someone thinks something is wrong with me or about me, or that I look wrong in some way. And if you think about it, that’s really rude.
I completely understand and appreciate that people’s hearts are in the right place, and that they are asking because they care. I truly appreciate it – I’m just saying there’s better ways in which to care that don’t put little dents in people’s self esteem. It’s hard enough to get through a day feeling anything approaching reasonable positivity about the way we look without unsolicited query-comments implying that we don’t look so great.
The only time I think, “are you okay?” is appropriate is if you actually see someone do something that might produce an injury, like falling down, obviously limping, or smacking their head. This is a query for the obviously wounded, not for a woman who looks pale or happens not to be smiling at present.
I don’t have a problem asking for assistance if I am ill, injured, or experiencing emotional turmoil. And even if I did, “hey, how are you today?” is enough caring invitation to get me to tell you, if you’re who I wish to share any of those things with.