Ask a Silly Question…


One thing I will never get used to, even though I do sometimes ask it myself nowadays, is the American question “Are you okay?”. Because it’s per definition asked when someone is clearly not okay.

Okay, read on…

I don’t know if it has to do with Americans’ eternal optimism—a sort of wishful thinking in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary: “Yeah, sure, I just fell out of a three-story window and I’ve got two broken legs and I’m sort of unconscious, but yeah, I’m doing great. Life is good. Rock on.”

Or maybe it has to do with the indirect way in which Americans sometimes communicate, at least to Dutch standards. Maybe it’s too direct to just ask when a friend is bawling her eyes out: “Honey, what’s wrong?” By asking “Are you okay?” you start with what’s clearly not the case, and then spend a few minutes getting around to the obvious fact that there’s a problem. More polite? If you say so. But terribly inefficient if you ask me.

My children get into fights because of this ultimate silly question. If something is clearly wrong with my daughter R, my son B will sometimes ask “Are you okay?” That drives my daughter insane. Because of course she’s not okay. The fact that she’s crying her eyes out/bleeding profusely/screaming while hopping around and holding her foot, is an obvious clue in her mind. So when B asks if she’s okay, she feels like he’s making fun of her. As if he’s being sarcastic. B, however, is just being all-American-friendly and completely sincere in his concern. And then he’s pissed off because here he is, being nice to his sister, coming to her aid, and what’s the thanks he gets?

So there I am, refereeing a culture clash between my two American kids. At which point my American husband walks into the room, senses that something is wrong, and asks: “Is everything okay?”

I would love to know what you think, even about old posts.

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