Going Beyond "How Are You?"
Issue   |   Wed, 09/16/2015 - 00:08

Aside from making sure we remembered our manners, Tomi Williams, in his welcome letter to students coming to campus, reminded us to be mindful. In Williams’ words, “When you begin to get a bit tired of the inevitable redundancy of welcome back exchanges, remember how fortunate you are to be a part of community that cares enough to ask and to actually listen.” He has a good point. We at Amherst are incredibly fortunate to belong to a community that has the resources to help those who feel lost or out of place during their time in college.

And Amherst students do remember our manners. Virtually every time you pass an acquaintance on the sidewalk, you can expect them to say, “Hi, how are you?” However, the issue that we miss when we ask or answer the question “How are you?” is that often people don’t want to give a straightforward answer, and many aren’t expecting to listen to an honest response.

“Duck syndrome” is a phrase popularized at Stanford, but it’s a ailment that, in some form or other, is present at colleges across the country. It’s the appearance of handling everything perfectly while silently struggling, much like a duck seemingly gliding across water while paddling furiously underneath the waves. At Amherst, we have our often-discussed loneliness epidemic.

About 50 percent of each class will use the Counseling Center at some point in their college careers, which suggests that Amherst students feel the need to talk about what’s really going on in our lives. Yet, when we’re asked “How are you?” we simply smile and say “Good, how are you?” or, at the very worst, respond with a deflated “tired” or “busy.”

Despite the promise of our community’s open arms, many of us feel isolated and alone. Asking “How are you?” as we pass by someone just doesn’t cut it. It’s a good start, but as a community we need to engage in this apparently simple question and be ready to receive an honest answer. This also means that we need to be deliberate and honest in asking people how they are, ready and willing to receive the honest answer rather than reproducing the tried, true but hollow call and response.

This isn’t a new message. Even the newest students are familiar with the resources we have available to deal with everything from a stress of an essay to the serious shadow of mental illness on campus. Everyone has read about the destigmatization of the Counseling Center, the need to reach out to friends, family and professionals when things are tough. But we also need to have each other, the entire community, as support. Amherst can be a stressful place. Anyone can feel it, even in these first few weeks of school. As we approach the new semester and year, we can start by simply being honest.