Am I OK? Don't ask

Dear Person Whom I Have Never Met Before and Whom I Don’t Know From A Hole In The Wall: I hope you’re well.

Actually, in the event that I am writing this email on a Friday, I hope you have a lovely weekend. If I’m writing this on a Monday, well, I also hope you had a lovely weekend.

In fact, I am stuck as to how to address you if I have the misfortune to be contacting you in the middle of the week. Meanwhile you, the recipient, know perfectly well that I don’t care in any way, shape or form what is the state of your health.

A couple of weeks ago there were several teeth-grinding columns in various papers in response to a survey which found that people no longer said “Thank you.”

Instead, people now utter a series of inanities, leading with “no problem” and “no worries.” Why, exactly, should there be a problem? And why should I be worried about it?

Last week I walked around a very large department store in Manchester and every single shop assistant greeted me in the same way. “Are you ok?” Not, “Can I help you?” which at least has the merit of a simple supply and demand question, requiring only a positive or negative response.

Eventually, after first wondering whether I was being regarded as a potential shoplifter (in which case asking whether I were ok wouldn’t really help), I cracked.

“Why do you all keep asking me if I’m ok? Do I not look ok? Do I look as though I am about to fall on the floor in a flailing heap?”

The shop assistant twitched, embarrassed. “It’s just what we say,” she said.

“But why?” I asked.

“That’s what we’re told to say to people,” she mumbled, obviously thinking, oh, Lord, why did I have to end up speaking to the nutter?

Falling into this same category of flabby stupidity in conversation are sign-offs such as “see you later” (no, you won’t), “be very well” — an instruction with which it is difficult to comply at will — or various combinations of text-speak and emoticons in emails from those who are, purportedly, grown-ups.

The problem is a yawning chasm between those who think words ought to mean something — and those who are just using words to fill in the spaces between sounds and silence.

Take it from me, silence is relatively acceptable in pretty much every case. We don’t really need to hear your every waking thought — the curse of social media — and we don’t need to be asked about our state of health at every turn. If we have never met, we are unlikely to want to share medical information. Assume we are fine unless we tell you otherwise.

I will make one exception to this rule: Shabbat shalom.

I think it’s reasonable to wish someone — anyone — Shabbat shalom in an email or in conversation. Unless, of course, it’s the middle of the week. Or in a Manchester department store.

    Last updated: 8:45am, August 16 2013