On any given day, human beings can speak anywhere from hundreds of words to tens of thousands. From morning greetings, to coffee orders, to client calls, our mouths are constantly moving, our fingers are constantly typing, and we are constantly reading and interpreting information over a variety of media.
But in this sea of syllables and rhythms, how often do we think about the value of what we have to say? When we bump into someone on the street, do we really mean it when we say, "I'm sorry"? When a colleague sneezes, do we really mean it when we say, "God bless you"? Our speech becomes reactionary instead of proactive, and little by little, it becomes meaningless.
Because we input and output words so quickly on a daily basis, it's often difficult to perceive or pay attention to nonverbal cues from those around us. When someone is dealing with something painful, their first instinct might not be to spew words. Everyday, it's likely that we'll ask someone "How are you?" The response will usually be something like, "I'm good, thanks," or "Fine, thank you. And you?" But these innate salutations can rarely access a person's true state of being.
"How are you?" is a string of three benign words, not aiming at a specific purpose. For all the times in my life when I've needed someone, a "how are you" did not suffice. I could never get across what I had pent up inside. The question I wished people would ask instead had just as many words, but would mean so much more: "Are you okay?"
"Are you okay?" establishes a deeper level of concern that aims at intimacy and confession. It requires a less public, one-on-one connection. It demands a more authentic answer than "good" or "fine." But at the same time, it also allows for flexibility in the response. You could answer, "yes," or you could explain your situation. Sometimes the question is enough to make someone feel better without the answer.
What we say means something, so we need to make every word count. And the simplest words are often the most powerful.