There are a lot of things Covid-19 took away that I want back. I want to get on planes. I want to sit on my friends’ couches and drink wine. I want to visit museums, eat pie at a diner counter, and run errands without having to think about how many people I might encounter, and whether there’s a clean mask in my car. I want to hug my grandfather, and take my great aunts out to dinner, and not be so worried about my parents all the time.
I want most things to go back to normal, but there’s one major pandemic-related change I hope is permanent. For the last year, when asked, “How are you?” there’s been no pressure to say, “I’m great!” whether we mean it or not.
In fact, the pandemic changed everything about our pleasantries. It’s lent a new kind of weight to our small talk, and made us think about — and more importantly, care about — each another in a much more meaningful way.
The ubiquitous “How are you” has long been a greeting without a lot of substance behind it, asked with the expectation of a short, polite response: “I’m fine, how are you?” It’s generally understood that the person asking doesn’t really want to know how we are, and giving an authentic answer would probably make things weird pretty fast.
But it became a much more fraught question at the start of the pandemic, because it could be safely assumed that no one at all could honestly answer, “I’m good.” New responses quickly popped up. I began saying I was “pandemic fine.” A friend started sarcastically saying she was “living the dream.” Then, at the end of a particularly rough week, early in the virus’ second wave, a phone call with a colleague began with her asking, “how are you?” and I paused for a moment, thought about it, and answered: “Bad. I’m actually really bad.”
That moment of honesty led to an open conversation. We talked about our fears and frustrations, and shared things we might otherwise have kept to ourselves. It was a refreshing, friendship-strengthening talk that it turned out we both needed.
Now, when I ask people how they are, it’s because I actually want to know. And when they ask me, I assume they’re looking for a real answer. It’s a positive side-effect of the pandemic: a universal struggle has fostered empathy, and made us all more willing to open up.
“Another positive outcome is that we are learning the importance of other people in our lives,” writes Auburn University sociology professor Allen Furr. “Isolation is hard for most everyone, and being cut off from others has reminded us to stay close to the people we care about.” It’s a lesson we’d do well to remember even after the isolation ends. “The crisis has taught us the importance of reaching out to friends and loved ones, and perhaps we will stay close to them.”
The increased empathy extends to acquaintances, and even strangers, as evidenced by the inclination to include some version of, “I hope this finds you well/healthy/safe/sane,” in an email’s opener. It may have started as a way to simply note that the state of the world was unusual. But now, over a year later, it’s a way to acknowledge that people may still be struggling, and to express genuine concern.
We may all be eager to put the pandemic, and everything it brought with it, behind us. But the newfound empathy, openness, willingness to talk about negative feelings, and acceptance that it’s ok to not be totally ok — that’s something we should keep.
“The worry is that when the crisis ends, we will stop talking as often. But what I have seen is people being more expressive and clever in their communications,” writes Furr. “They are opening up and not just simply exchanging pleasantries; they are relying on tech-dependent communication to express their emotions and ideas. Hopefully, this will make us freer and more open once face-to-face communication returns.”