Count the number of times in the course of your day (in person or on the phone) someone asks 'how are you?' or words to that effect. I think we use turns of phrase like this to fill up the silence between us. No one expects an answer and when you do your count, I think you'll be surprised as to how often throughout the day we reach for this conversational crutch.
Every time I go to a physician's office (and I see enough different doctors that I have my very own Blue Cross/Blue Shield customer rep, 1-888-bill-sick), the receptionist asks me how I am. I am in your office to see your doctor; do the math. I'm certainly NOT here for the six-month-old magazines or that gorgeous view of the tops of the cars in the parking lot. And as lovely as that wall clock from the drug company rep for one of the erectile dysfunction treatments may well be, I already have a watch and didn't stop in to check the time. Besides the size of the sweep second-hand makes me feel very inadequate.
Perhaps, the person behind the desk feels they should do something for the co-payment. After all, when I do get in to see the doctor, I'm not going to get a complimentary tongue depressor and I've yet to be offered a special on a colonoscopy (BOGO 'buy one, get one-half off!').
So how should you respond? "I'm fine" Suppose you do that. Does the desk jockey immediately determine you needn't see the doctor and do you get your co-pay back? Two different questions with very different answers (so far for me the latter has yet to happen).
And then when I do get to the exam room, the doctor invariably starts off by asking 'how are you?' as well. I've often wondered if he checks the answer with the person out front to make sure I haven't wavered since the waiting room. Lost in all of this is that the answer to just that question is why I am in the doctor's office in the first place.
Unless unbeknownst to me, I'm really part of some kind of a carney act, where he guesses my weight or how much change I have in my jacket pocket. Thirty-eight cents, by the way, doc, and none of the five coins is a dime. Hmmm......
Anyway, you ponder that cosmic question and I'll check back in with you later on. You'll know that it's me because I'll ask 'how are you?' but I won't be listening to your answer.