No, they are not “Rock, paper, scissors!” They are not even “I love you!” which of course has a vast variety of implied meanings.
The 3 Words Women Want to Hear are: “How are you?”
I’m constantly reminded that it’s a question that men and women engage with from very different assumptions. The guy answer is a yes or no. “All good,” or “must fix situation X, hand me the 3/4-inch wrench.” It’s like the equivalent of “have you completed your Action Items?”
Women use this question very differently. Many an inter-female hatred has been instantly dispelled, and many a friendship created, on the strength of those three words. I know, stunning, isn’t it. Try it sometime. That chick in the office who hates your guts? Ask her, with genuine sincerity, “How are you today?” and watch the cognitive dissonance ignite in her beady little eyes.
The historic, ubiquitous social role of women is to be there for others. Because we take this very seriously, we consider it epic when somebody else chooses to be there for us. In his wonderful novel Summer of Light, Dale Cramer’s main character has a series of parenting experiences that cause him to realize a fundamental fact: Men’s labour is often physically harder. But it ends. They go home from work. Then they sit down, maybe watch the game, and the woman does things to look after them. There’s a recharge period for men. In fact, many men experience existential panic if their downtime is threatened.
There is no such thing as downtime in a woman’s everyday world. The woman has been doing things for people all day, and then continues until she falls asleep at night. This is how we approach work, whether out-of-home or as homemakers. We give of ourselves. It’s easy to wonder whether anyone is measuring and seeking to enhance our well-being the way we measure and try to enhance the well-being of those for whom we feel responsible (whether we really are or not).
Women bond with each other around the question, “how are you?” because we know that if we don’t ask it of each other, no one else on the planet is going to. I know who my true friends are by that question. I know whether another woman is being insincerely polite, snooping, or genuinely caring, by how that question is asked. It is The Question.
And let’s be honest. Men know this. It’s why some kinds of men ask “how are you?” when they want something. Like an affair. You see? There are reasons good men rarely use those words, a lifetime of reasons which often plant good men firmly between a rock and a hard place.
For instance: “How are you?” is completely different from “what’s wrong?” Women all know that “what’s wrong?” arises presuppositionally from the concept that something needs to be fixed. It is not The Question, it is A Man Question.
Accordingly, we resent the assumption that we are not working right, when we feel that all we have been doing is work, not that anyone has noticed. “What’s wrong?” implies that we should just get back in working order (“what well-being? Can’t we just watch the game [Action Item: downtime] and that will fix everything?”).
And so, “what’s wrong?” avoids any confusion over boundaries. Et cetera.
Women specialize in well-being, not Action Items. When we execute goals on the Action Items list, we are doing so from a presuppositional basis: not that things need to be fixed, but that well-being will result. That is how we are choosing whether or not we will listen to men’s ideas about What Must Be Done and How To Do It. See? Baffling female behavior solved.
We can be highly selective about whose well-being we’re seeking, but that is not the point. As long as we are acting upon well-being, someone’s, somewhere, not necessarily yours, our conscience is at ease.
This, by the way, guys, is the top-secret solution to that scenario where you walk in and notice there is A Silent But Palpable Mood Clouding The Air.
You will first have to get through the part where you failed to engage in caring for our engine of well-being before it ran out of oil, overheated and our giveadurn (which is attached to the well-being engine via that crankshaft there labelled “Conversation,” among other obscure mechanisms such as the prettyshoeometer) got busted. You know “fine” means nothing of the sort. It is in fact a hedge against you trying to “fix things,” which is the most irritating behavior possible to a woman whose well-being is already threatened enough, thank you.
We have seen you “fix things.” Whole TV shows have been made documenting men “fixing things,” from Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor to Pimp My Ride. This is not the time to discuss what custom modifications you would like to install to improve the steering attitude.
So when we say, “fine,” it means “do NOT try to help me with that thing you do.” (Conversely, when we ask The Question and you say, “fine,” you mean “fine” and we hear “do NOT try to help me with that thing you do.” Rock, meet hard place. There is no winning against the house.)
In conclusion! Part of growing older as a woman is learning that
(A) there’s no point asking guy friends “how are you?” if you want to hear about their well-being, it will only weird them out and confuse them, and
(B) there’s no point waiting for 99% of grown men to figure out that we are unlikely to interpret those words in a sexual manner, that The Question is therefore safe if they are married to someone else, and that we expect the chance to engage with them in an actual co-evaluation of well-being, not just a list of Action Items, should they chance to accidentally ask The Question.
And part of growing older as a man is knowing which rock and which hard place have taken on the comfortable shape of your own backside. At least, in the cosmic game of rock-paper-scissors, rock sometimes wins.