Friday, July 21, 2017

"Are you okay?"

“Are you okay?”

This is a very common expression you’ll hear and probably even you use it when you have some fellow human-being who is suffering or hurt for one reason or another. However, it is an expression that I usually avoid using, and I would like to discuss why this may not be such a great expression for you to use either. I hope some of you will find my reasoning interesting.

Why don’t I like to use this expression, particularly when something actually does appear not to be okay with someone? Well, the issue is that by using this expression, there is an implicit expectation for the person to whom you address it to reply, “Yes, I’m okay.” In other words, it's as if you don't really want to hear what is really going on. And even if you do want to know the truth, this phrase does not invite more of a response than "Yeah, I'm okay"; the person my in fact subconsciously feel pressure not to upset or involve you in their situation because culturally that's how it goes with this expression.

Let me give you an example. If you are sick, or you look sick, and you tell someone that you are sick and then they ask, “Are you okay?” …Well what can you do with this? Don’t you think you are just expected or even pressured to say, “Yeah, thank you…” Or, if you are sad and crying, and someone asks you, “Are you okay?” Don’t you wish you could just say, “Can’t you see I am NOT okay right now!!??” A response like that might be something we see in a movie, but not often in real life. We may not be consciously aware of it, but yes, we are expected to say and to hear, “I’m okay.”

So here is the issue. When you ask “Are you okay?” it makes it sound like you are concerned for the person you are talking to, and that may indeed be true. Having expressed concern you may feel good about it without even thinking that it may not be such a great expression of concern. And the person to whom you address the question cannot complain about the expression easily because you appeared to show some concern and it’s a culturally accepted expression. It’s so tricky. The tragedy is that this question does not do anything much for the person who is “not really feeling okay.”

I have even experienced a good number of therapists using this expression and it makes me feel sad to see it. (Well, to be honest, it drives me nuts). Many of our clients, by nature, already have difficulty sharing what is going on in their lives with people. If therapists could be a little more sensitive and avoid this kind of insensitive question, our clients could express themselves much more easily.

If you really want to show true concern and hear what is going on, you can just say something like: “What is wrong?” “What happened?” “Is something bothering you?” etc. Then, they can share what is really going on relatively more easily, and you can now provide real support. Yes, it is a tiny thing but it does make a big difference!

Well, you may now wonder, “but if it’s just my coworker or neighbor and I don’t really want to hear too much detail, then what can I do?” In this case, one, you can just keep using “Are you okay?” to demonstrate your basic level of concern for the person, not really intending to offer help or invite an explanation, but just to show some level of “social appropriateness.” It does work well for this purpose and is totally fine. Or, you can say something like, “You don’t look good. I hope you can go easy today,” “Here is some tea for you,” “I Hope you feel better soon,” etc. For me, putting a person who is obviously not okay in a position where they feel obliged to say “I’m okay,” is the last thing we should want to do.

I am not writing about this today out of some concern for being “politically correct,” I in fact don’t care much about political correctness or that kind of thing, to be honest. However, I do care about the effectiveness of communication. If you are more aware of small nuances in your daily expressions and express yourself more effectively, you will have more quality experiences and relationships. As a psychologist and life-coach, I am quite sensitive to this small but important matter and hope eventually to introduce to you more and more things like this here.

By the way, why did I specifically say “fellow human-being” at the beginning? Because I say “Are you okay?” to my puppy all the time, when he does not look good. He always wants to reply “Yes, I’m okay. Let’s go for a walk” no matter how bad he might feel!