What ‘How are you?’ often really means


Why do recruiters have to engage in that “How are you?” nonsense when they are about to deliver the bad news that you didn’t get the job? Why don’t they cut out the fake niceties and just get straight to the point?

Illustration by John Shakespeare
Illustration by John ShakespeareCredit:


I can see how jovial pleasantries before bad news could be aggravating, and even come across as insulting, if you suspect the person you’re speaking with is being disingenuous. When both parties are fully aware that the start of a conversation is nothing more than “fake niceties”, as you put it, nobody benefits.

I can also see, however, that for some people, beginning such a conversation with salutations (no matter how banal) might be considered polite. It might even help them calm their own nerves before a difficult conversation.

I asked Associate Professor Stuart Ekberg from the School of Psychology & Counselling at Queensland University of Technology about small talk and the role it plays in conversations. He told me that “How are you?” is a highly conventionalised question and almost always receives a conventionalised response.

“But one reason for asking it is that it can provide an early alert that things are not well,” he said.

Ekberg has studied hundreds of business calls as part of his work and says among the dozens and dozens of forgettable replies like “Well thanks” and “Not too bad”, one that still sticks in his memory was far from perfunctory.

“The call recipient replied ‘Terrible’ because she had just learnt that her brother had died. This did not change the business that needed to be conducted, but it did allow for the caller to change how the business was conducted in relation to the call recipient’s bereavement.”


As for your particular case, Ekberg says it’s hard to be certain what the intentions of the recruiters you’re working with might be in asking such a question.

“What I know from the research is there’s evidence that good news tends to be delivered immediately while bad news is often delayed within a conversation,” he says.

It’s possible, then, that “How are you?” is a kind of tactic. Now, that tactic may be deliberately unscrupulous or sly, but it may also just be a natural – and even automatic – part of a person’s process for forwarding an unwanted message.

“More generally,” Ekberg says, “small talk can be used to fill what would otherwise be silent periods, such as between someone meeting you in a waiting room and escorting you to a meeting room.

“But it also happens when getting down to business might be possible – in a meeting room, for example. There is some research suggesting that the boundary between small talk and business talk in such contexts can be blurred. Healthcare professionals, for example, can obtain medically relevant information from what might otherwise seem to be small talk.”

It doesn’t sound like the recruiters you’re dealing with are trying to glean important information from you. Or that there’s a hazy boundary in your discussions. It may simply be that the recruiters don’t want to sound brusque.

Perhaps one way of bypassing the frustration this causes is to get in before any small talk is possible. When a recruiter calls, and you know the conversation can only go one of two ways, get to the point in the way you wish that they would. Ask them immediately, “Is it good news or bad news?” It’s neither rude nor aggressive, but signals that you’re not interested in any preamble and just want to hear the facts.

I hope those facts are working in your favour in the very near future.

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Source: Thanks smh.com