how to answer “how are you?” when you’re grieving

A reader writes:

My dad died in late August. Since then, many people have asked me “how are you?” to which I usually respond with, “I’m okay” or “I’m here” or “It’s day-by-day.” Depending on how close they are to me, I may expand upon that answer. I don’t answer with “fine” because … well, I’m not fine. I have more worries as my mom needs to sell the house and relocate closer to me, I miss my dad, I need to reorganize my home so my mom can temporarily live with me, etc.

The issue is with my boss when he asks this question.

There have been some organizational changes, and I went from having an on-site manager to an overseas one. To compound the issue, we have a language barrier problem (his English is not 100% fluent, and my French is not 100% fluent). We do our 1:1 meetings over the phone.

In the first 1:1 with him not 12 days after my Dad died, this was the interaction:

Manager: “Hi! How are you?”
Me: “I’m a bit sad.”
Manager: “Oh? Why?”
Me: *stunned* “Um, my father’s recent death?!?”
Manager: “Oh, right….”

I have reached out to our Employee Assistance Program and spoken with a grief counsellor. In my recent session with the counselor, I asked about how to deal with the “how are you” question with my boss, because I am *not* fine, and I cannot in good conscience answer “fine” despite this being the answer my boss is expecting. We came up with the French, “comme si, comme ça,” which translates to “so-so.”

In my recent 1:1, I used the “so-so” answer, to which he again asked, “why?” and I made some comment about changes in my personal life as well as the recent organizational changes. His response was, “I cannot help you with your personal life.”

What I need is a way to get around an answer of “fine” to “how are you?” because I do not want to answer “fine.” I don’t want to be rude and ask that he not ask the question: I just want to find a way to answer so that I don’t get a “why?” at the end of it, because it’s clear he doesn’t want to hear the “why” when it might be “personal.”

The easiest answers will be “I’m okay — how are you doing?” and “Hanging in there — how about you?”

I’ve answered a different version of this question before, from someone who felt the “how are you?”/“fine” ritual was deeply inauthentic and objected to it on that basis. My advice to him was different, although there’s some overlap. In that case, the answer was that in many work contexts, “how are you?” doesn’t really mean “tell me what’s really going on with you.” It just means “I acknowledge you, fellow human.” The “fine, and you?” response means “I acknowledge you back.” It’s social ritual.

But in your case, I completely get why answering “fine” feels dishonest, and maybe even like a betrayal of your grief for your father. Of course you don’t want to say you’re fine when a parent just died. That makes perfect sense.

The piece of this I don’t think you’re accounting for is where your manager is coming from and what the responses you’ve been giving will prompt from him. If you tell him, “I’m a bit sad,” any decent human is going to ask about that. It will sound like you want that! There’s no way to hear “I’m a bit sad” and respond with, “Well, let’s talk about this week’s sales.”

That said, there’s some weirdness on his side! He keeps forgetting about your dad’s death. And his “I cannot help you with your personal life” line is horrible and cold, especially when you were just answering a question he had asked.

But here’s what we know about your boss from your letter: He is not good at remembering this important thing from your life. He should be, but for whatever reason, he’s not. And like most people, he is going to ask you follow-up questions if you tell him you’re not doing okay.

So, given that your goal here is to just get past this part of the conversation without feeling like you’re lying, go with a response that’s relatively neutral and doesn’t invite further questioning. “I’m so-so” is moving you closer to that, but it’s not quite there — it’s still an answer that most people would feel compelled to ask about.

But “I’m okay — how are you?” and “Hanging in — how are you doing?” will probably work better. They convey “there’s nothing you need to inquire about here.” Plus, asking him how’s he’s doing right after you answer is an important part of this because it will move the conversation along … whereas your previous responses were just sitting out there alone, further increasing the need for him to engage with them. Instead, if you return the conversational volley (“how about you?”), he can complete his side of the social ritual, and the conversation can move on.

I’m sorry about your dad.

{ 441 comments… read them below }

    1. Rosie not so riveting*

      The best way to ‘get out of’ answering this question is to ALWAYS SAY HELLO FIRST, and feel free to ask “how are you” when you do say hello.

  1. Fabulous*

    Is there perhaps a custom French reply to this question? Similar to how “fine” is the standard in the US, or something like a “See you later alligator,” “After while crocodile” type of answer you could incorporate instead.

    1. Fabulous*

      Also, forgot to add how sorry I am about your dad. I can’t fathom going through that type of devastating loss. *Hugs*

      1. Diahann Carroll (formerly Fortitude Jones)*

        I use this all the time, even with fellow English speakers. It just sounds better than the very abrupt “fine.”

        1. Practicing Sandwich*

          Why not interpret the question “how are you” so the answer is always ‘good’ (unless you are a disney villain, a mean girl or arch-criminal, in which case you are ‘bad’).

          Otherwise, the answer to “how are you Doing?” is “I’m doing the best I can” -said either with bravado, or a saucy wink.

      2. Treecat*

        Yes I would also suggest “ça va.” It’s very neutral in French (“it goes”/”it’s going”) without the aspect of “things are going (relatively) well” that “fine” implies. Unless OP’s boss is unusually pushy, she should be able to respond to a “How are you?” question with “ça va” without further comment from her boss.

        I’m sorry for your loss, OP.

      3. Falling Diphthong*

        And it fits here. “It goes?” “It goes.” It’s even technically correct and accurate.

        And I am one of those usually arguing that it’s a social ritual divorced from the meaning of the words–but when the person asking you knows your life well enough to know that it is not fine, I think more variation is allowed. I would either not ask, or ask wanting a real answer, depending on how close I am to the person. But Alison is right that for whatever reason, your boss seems incapable of retaining this information, so you need a workaround that you can enact without needing his cooperation, since you can only affect your own actions here. Whether that’s “ca va” or “okay, meaning I want this part of the conversation to end now since you’re so bad at it, but I’m only saying the first two syllables aloud.”

        1. EH*

          OP, I’m so sorry about your Dad.

          What Falling Diphthong said. I have a Thing(tm) about speaking true words, so I have a handful of evasive answers that aren’t lies but do fill my part in the “greetings, fellow human” script.

          Moving to the next line of the script is crucial if you don’t want to make things weird. I’m not going to talk to my coworkers about any of the heavy shit I deal with from time to time, but I can’t bring myself to say “I’m fine” when I’m not. My go-tos:

          “How’s it going?” “Eh, it goes. You?”

          “How are you?” “Well, *shrug* I’m here, you?” aiming for a tone of “I showed up today so clearly things aren’t too bad, right?”

          “How are you?” “Eh, I’m hanging in there. You?”

          “Eh” is a helpful sound for me because it helps convey the “I have stuff going on but it’s not relevant to this greeting ritual” tone I’m aiming for.

          1. Charamei*

            ‘Eh, not too bad’ in a cheery tone is my go-to. Tacitly admits that things aren’t 100%, but in such a way that most people will hear ‘I’m fine’ rather than ‘Well, I’m not dead’. (This may work better in the UK, where it’s fairly idiomatic.) Definitely close the loop after, just in case they notice!

        2. Hey Nonnie*

          Also, if despite your best efforts at a neutral answer the boss still asks “Why?”, you can just answer “personal stuff” without elaborating. Maybe after enough repetition he remembers not to ask after things he doesn’t want to know, maybe he doesn’t, but at least you can sidestep the whole business where he TELLS you he didn’t want the answer to the question he just asked.

          This is a personal pet peeve of mine, actually. Don’t ask if you don’t want to hear the answer. And most definitely do not shift blame to me because you asked that question.

          For future reference as well, a good answer for “I can’t help you with your personal life” is “I didn’t ask you to.” (Or if you can get away with it: “I didn’t ask, you did.”)

          1. Hey Nonnie*

            Also-also, when I know I’m dealing with someone of that type, or if I want to side-step that circuit completely for my own reasons: almost no one will notice you not answer the question if you move to the next step of the loop instead. So instead of “How are you?” “Fine.” it’s “How are you?” “Hey, Boss, how are you?”

            I guarantee this is a guy who won’t notice.

            1. Helena*

              I do this by accident relatively frequently, and I can confirm that nobody ever notices. Like, literally never.

          2. Anita Brayke*

            Amen to this! I can’t even believe he’s enough of a jerk to say “I can’t help you with your personal life.” I mean I do believe it, but what a wholly inappropriate thing to say when you’re simply answering his stupid question.

            New Rule! Bosses of the world, for God’s sake and the sake of all that is holy, Get A Clue! You’re in charge, it’s long past time you HAD a clue!!

            1. Tiara Octopus*

              I’m actually given to believe this is linguistic wires crossed. It seems more like maybe he’s trying to ask “how is work going?” and then got confused when she replied with something he couldn’t change for her.

              1. Candy*

                This is what I thought as well. OP thinks Boss is asking “how’s everything [with you]?” while Boss thinks he’s asking “how’s everything [at work this week]?”

              2. Blerpborp*

                Certainly this is not just an issue with the intent of his original question but a language barrier thing too. “Personal life” -even to me, a native English speaker- is more commonly referring to romantic relationships and it’s possible the French-speaker has never heard it used to talk about family in that way (not that it’s wrong usage but somewhat less common) and was taken aback that the LW was suddenly bringing up their dating life. But I am also firmly in the “it’s social custom” camp and that all people who is that you follow the social script and it’s fine to “lie” and say you’re good/great/fine whatever just to move the interaction along but the words themselves are meaningless. It’s not really lying and it’s just, as Alison says, a way of expressing “Yes, fellow human, I am also a human and we are acknowledging that we are both humans who exist.”

          3. Treats for Shelby*

            The problem is it’s a ritual that started out as a real question, but for many it’s just a way of saying hello. So you have to take into account that some people are really asking how you’re doing and others are just acknowledging you and you have to answer in a way that accommodates both.

      4. Pommette!*

        I think that “ça va” is perfect here, because it’s noncommittal, and lets your tone do most of the speaking.

        If you were going well, you could say “Ça va bien!” (or just “Bien!”), or even just “ça va”, but in a positive tone that indicated that things were going well, and not just “going”.

        If your boss hadn’t indicated that he doesn’t want a real answer and created an awkward situation for you in the process, you could answer truthfully: “ça va pas”, ou “ça va mal”.

        But “ça va” said neutrally, or even in a sad voice, literally means that things are still going. That you are persisting, and working your way through life and what it has thrown at you. Which you are.

        You have my sympathy for your loss.

        1. Llama Face!*

          I also agree with everyone who suggested ça va. I would add “Et vous?” at the end to close the pleasantries loop if you haven’t already asked something to that effect. Or else continue immediately with a work question or some generic commment about the weather to move on from the subject.

          So, basically like this:
          Boss: Comment allez-vous ?/Comment ça va ? (How are you?/ How’s it going?)
          You: Ça va. Et vous* ? (It goes. And you?)
          Or you: Ça va. Quel temps fait-il à Paris ? (It goes. How’s the weather in Paris?)

          *I’m assuming you are still using formal vous and not informal tu with your boss.

          1. Pommette!*

            Yes, definitely send the question back like it’s a hot potato, and get the painful pleasantries over with!

        2. L*

          I thought your last line said “You have my sympathy for your boss,” and honestly, I feel like both sentiments apply.

      5. FluentinFrench*

        I came to the comment section to say this! “Ca va” would work well culturally and should be helpful in this context.

        I’m so sorry about your Dad.

      6. Doc in a Box*

        Yes, ça va is what you’re after. It’s the perfect response to these kinds of questions, because it is just noise but your tone can say a lot. You can have a chipper “Oui, ça va! Et vous?” or a more sober, slower “Oh, ça va.”

        I’m not a native French speaker but I’ve lived there for a while and “comme ci comme ça” doesn’t idiomatically fit the way “ça va” does. When you go off-idiom, the words stop become background noise and draws attention, exactly what it sounds like you don’t want in this situation.

    2. chitheatergirl*

      Also, I don’t know enough about French culture to know if he’s not asking how the employee is doing on a personal level. Maybe he’s only asking how the person is doing with regard to work. Some cultures don’t share much personal information except with those they are close with.

        1. Thatoneoverthere*

          Yes, my sister is an American living in Germany. They almost never ask each other “How they are doing?”. Its just not done. In the US, its practically a greeting. But there you just say “Hi”, sometimes they don’t greet each other at all. They way Americans greet nearly every person they pass.

        2. Marina*

          But you’re correct. The French boss is not asking for a person emotional inventory. It’s a pro for a question to start the conversation.

        3. JSPA*

          Exactly. “Work is going OK” / “The projects are on schedule” / “We’re on track with everything but the Martin account, and the delay with that project isn’t on our side” are all perfectly reasonable answers to the question.

          It’s fairly standard in France (or used to be) that work functions as something of a respite from personal stress, and vice versa. If you’re in the office, you have your game face on, and the topics are work, work, and possibly some client-related personal stuff but only if it’s relevant to work.

          1. Avasarala*

            Yes, I don’t understand why OP feels like the only way to handle this is to take inventory of their emotional status. My first thought was, “Work is going OK/No work problems/Work is going well/Nothing to report.”

            The boss does seem callous but could also be not forgetting so much as confused when he asks “How are things (at work)?” and OP responds “I’m sad (about my dad)”.

            1. Jen S. 2.0*

              Agree with this. Boss is not really asking “How’s your whole life?” He is asking something much closer to “How are the things going that we are here to do, i.e., work?” Boss wants to know if LW needs any work help, but LW is hearing a much bigger question than Boss is asking.

              1. Kc*

                I agree with this. I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my dad a year ago. I also think the remote office thing adds to the asking about work and not your whole life.

            2. TootsNYC*

              and quite aside from what the boss intends, the OP absolutely has the opportunity to steer the conversation. Say, “Things are on track,” or “I don’t anticipate any difficulties with X project, and Y project needs some extra help from your end.”

              Just step right over the part you don’t want to talk about, and turn it toward work.

              That’s what I’d do with a boss who DID want to hear about my emotional state, if I didn’t want to talk about it.

      1. Miss Muffet*

        +1! I think OP needs to be somewhat mindful here of cultural expectations and differences around this kind of boss/ee conversation. Yes, Boss should too, but I think this is probably mostly just a thing where many Europeans aren’t looking for this level of personal connection or involvement in this professional relationship.

    3. pleaset*

      I don’t think “comme si, comme ça” and “so-so” are appropriate. They are both correct in the sense that they balance good and bad, but neither allows space for true sorrow. They seem to be for some OK stuff and some somewhat bad stuff.

      1. pleaset*

        Ah, I see mention of “ça va” below – that seems more appropriate. There’s a level of whimsy in “comme si, comme ça” that is not right for this situation.

        1. sacados*

          Oh, that’s interesting. I was also a bit thrown because I felt the advice of saying “comme si comme ca” should have worked as the sort of neutral platitude that would not invite the boss to ask “why?”
          But it’s been a minute since my last French classes so if there is a lot more nuance to the “cs-cc” response then I would definitely agree the OP should maybe try a “ca va.”
          And if the boss STILL asks “why” after that then…. well OP maybe has more of a can’t-read-social norms boss problem than a language problem.

          1. TootsNYC*

            except if the boss is asking “how are Work You?” then he would definitely want to know why things are so-so; some good, some bad.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I was going to ask about the whimsy, because saying “so so” or “it’s all right” is often read as similarly droll in Spanish (así así) and Swahili (sawa sawa).

          1. pleaset*

            Whimsy isn’t maybe the right word. What I mean because of the repetitive nature of both those phrases there is an casualness about them that doesn’t seem right. Or maybe drollness as you say.

    4. Manon*

      I’m not fully fluent but I I’m think “je me débrouille” – I’m getting by/managing – could work.

      Can any fluent speakers weigh in?

      1. LilySparrow*

        Also not fluent, but in my classroom French, I would have thought “ca marche bien” might be appropriate.

        “Things are going well.”

        Assuming things at work are going well, or at least normally, it deflects the personal aspect completely. I really think the boss isn’t trying to ask how OP is doing personally at all. I think he’s intending it to be about the work.

        1. Pommette!*

          Ça marche is typically used to describe how well something (a machine or a process) works, rather than how well a person is going.

            1. Pommette!*

              Yes, and deflecting to work is a good idea under the circumstances!

              However “ça marche bien” isn’t going to do the job. It isn’t really equivalent to “things are going well”. A closer English translation would be “it works well”. You might say “ça marche” about a meeting time, a newly fixed tap, or a plan, but you wouldn’t say it about a person.

              1. JSPA*

                If the function of the boss’s inquiry is, “how are things going [at work]” (and granted, that’s how HE should be phrasing it, as the awkwardness of the situation is predicated on and triggered by HIS misuse of a phrase that DOES invite a personal response, in English!) then “ça marche” is fine. It’s the answer to the question he should have asked.

                The more I think about this, the more I think it might be worth pushing back (depending on how sensitive the boss is about his english, of course).

                In current US usage, when you ask someone you already know, “how are you,” you’re asking about the person’s state of being. Not primarily about how work is going. That’s distinct from being introduced to someone, or shaking hands and saying, “Hi, how are you,” which is a formalized greeting, though even there, the more informal, “how goes it” or “how’s it going” will direct more naturally to feedback about work. If you mean, “how are things going in the office,” it’s fine to ask that, directly.

                Partly this also has to do with inflection. As French is not* an inflected language, boss may be missing awareness of how inflections (or lack of inflection) can take “how are you” from a phrase of social nicety to a phrase of personal concern. (Same’s true for “how are you doing,” where a “hey, how ya DO-in?” lands differently from, “Hey. How ARE you doing?”)

                *to a first approximation, at least

      2. Donkey Hotey*

        Count me in on both “ca va” and “je me debrouille” and would add in “J’y arrive” – I’m getting there.

      3. Franchisant*

        I would use Je me debrouille to describe a situation like “The Jones report is a mess but I’m getting there” more than an emotional state, but I’m not 100% fluent either. I think my neutral vote would be ca va. Comme ci comme ca is like so-so with an implied negative and most people have asked a follow up when I’ve used it.

      4. JSPA*

        I don’t think it’s a terminology question so much as a crossing of work and personal streams.

      5. The Dig*

        French person here. As an answer to “Comment ça va?”, “Je me débrouille” will probably sound kinda clunky to a fluent speaker. It’s as if you asked “How are you?” and the person answered “I’m working on it”.
        The most neutral answer you can give (and, in most cases, the answer that’s expected, regardless of your actual state of mind) is a simple “ça va, et vous?”.

        “Comme-ci, comme ça” is an unusual phrase to use in this day and age (in France, can’t vouch for other French-speaking countries), and even more so in a greeting. That alone might explain why the boss reacted to it.

        1. Triumphant Fox*

          Yes – “Je me débrouille” is much more specific – I’m figuring it out, I’m working on it. There is usually an implied “it” there more than a general “I’m figuring out life.”

          Also, “Comme-ci, comme ça” alway strikes me as kind of sad – almost inviting the other person to follow up with “Oh, why are you not great?” Like “Eh, so-so” – that isn’t neutral, it’s actually more negative and does seem out of place in pleasantries. This is one of those phrases that gets used more often in American class rooms because it feels like an equivalent to American phrasing more so than it’s actually used by French people all the time.

        2. pamplemousse*

          Comme-ci comme ça is one of those phrases that every single French 1 class at the middle or high school level in the US teaches in the first lesson or two, even if it hasn’t come out of a native speaker’s mouth naturally in decades. (See also: “Zut!”)

          It’s actually kind of funny — my guess is that it hangs on because it’s a vestige of What You Are Supposed To Learn (and because a lot of language teachers in the US are nowhere close to fluent speakers, or their last exposure to native speakers was when they studied abroad 20 years ago).

  2. Bridgetbird*

    oh no the ink isn’t working Allison for your “I’ve answered a different version of this question before”.

    1. fposte*

      There’s an extra angle bracket at the end; if you delete that from the URL it’ll take you to the right page.

  3. Drew*

    Dear LW, I am so very sorry about your dad.

    It might help with your boss to frame his question in your mind not as “how are you, Letter Writer, doing overall” but “how is your work going, Letter Writer?” In other words, don’t treat it as a pleasantry but as the start of the conversation about your progress on your projects. I don’t know if that would seem too abrupt but it focuses on the piece that is appropriate to your boss and leaves out the part that he has already demonstrated he doesn’t handle well.

    1. DMLOKC*

      This is exactly what I was thinking. Move this to a business question. He’s already said he’s not interested in the personal stuff. It’s a business meeting and, while we’d like to think that someone cares for us as a whole person, in this case, take it at face value and hear it as a question about your work.

      1. Malarkey01*

        I was just coming to say this. I went through something similar and there is probably a bit of a cultural here too as my experience with my Belgium coworkers was that we did not discuss personal items AT ALL (other than I’m sure we would have shared if there was a loss in our family).

        I think you can answer honestly but very focused by saying “I was happy with the results I got on x” or “I’m struggling with an issue on y design”.

        I also say this with incredible sympathy, but few people really grasp grief when they aren’t right in the middle of it. While everyone was very caring right after my father passed, it was not in the forefront of most people’s thoughts after a month (even though it was something I still thought about constantly). Even having experienced it myself, I was recently taken aback when a good friend answered this question “not great” 3 months after her moms passing. I hadn’t even put it together since it had seemed like so long ago to me, but absolutely she was still grieving. Unfortunately since we all don’t wearing mourning clothes anymore, people tend to forget.

        1. wittyrepartee*

          Yeah, I was coming to say this. You can also go “I had a really wonderful coffee today at ___. Have you ever been there?”

          This is what I told my friend to do when her family, with whom she has a tense relationship, was asking questions about moving that she wasn’t ready to answer. “Tell them you found a wonderful new coffee shop! Then tell them everything about that coffee shop.”

        2. Micklak*

          I think that’s such a good point. You can’t expect people to be in the same head space as you. Especially if they are on the phone in another country. If someone told me they were a bit sad in the context of a business call I would be flabbergasted. I think my first response would be “why?” too because I would be expecting the conversation to be about business.

          1. Diahann Carroll (formerly Fortitude Jones)*

            I can see that the first time (I, too, always interpret my coworkers’ how are you’s as work questions), but the second time? Nah, I need you to write this down, lol.

            1. ChimericalOne*

              Her boss probably expects the conversation to be about business every time & was trying to coach her that he expects a business-related (not a personal) response. We generally expect employees to adjust to their boss’s expectations rather than the other way around (so he’s not really the one who needs to “write this down,” although I do sympathize with the OP’s confusion).

              Some of this might be “cold Yankee culture” and some of it might be because I’m Aspie, but I probably would’ve had a similar reaction to the boss. “How are you doing?” to a direct report to me always means, “How is work going?” or “Give me a status check / tell me if there’s anything I need to know about affecting you today?” Not “I’d love to know your mood” or “Please tell me how you really feel today.” If someone told me they were sad in response, I would probably ask,”Why?” or “What’s up?,” thinking that the OP was trying to tell me that something specific had just happened to them (either personal or work-related) that I should know about. If they replied, “Because of my dad dying a few weeks ago,” I would recontextualize that earlier “I’m sad” to be trying to take the conversation somewhere personal. To me, the response “I’m sad” is just not really an appropriate thing to say to your boss, and there’s no good way for the boss to respond to that.

              And then, the next time he asks, “How are you doing?,” she responds “So-so” — again giving him a personal response rather than a business one. So he tells her, basically, I’m not able to help you with personal things, let’s please keep the conversation to business. It’s because he never viewed “how are you doing?” as an invitation to talk about feelings. To him, it was always just a polite greeting and (most likely) an easy way to leave an opening for employees to bring up work-related issues. And it doesn’t seem like a horribly unreasonable expectation, although he handled it with some clumsiness (possibly due to the language barrier). OP just needs to remember to address his “How are you”s as if they were “How are you, as far as work goes?”

        3. Morning Glory*

          Yes, I think pretending that there’s a silent ‘with work stuff’ at the end of every ‘how are you doing’ would go a long way toward helping OP answer this question in a way that her boss expects while also protecting her own grief.

      2. valentine*

        “how is your work going, Letter Writer?”
        Yes. As someone raised to avoid “Fine” as the worst sin, a Lie, the awkwardness that follows the slightest truth just isn’t worth it, and is an even greater burden for you. Your boss is very much a “Bring me actual-work problems, not feelings” type, and that’s okay, in general, though perhaps not for you, or not for you while you’re viewing everything through this new, painful lens of a world without your father in it. Even saying, “Work wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have to worry about my mom,” won’t serve you, while “I’m distracted and could use some half-days next week while my mother moves in,” might, because he can do something about that.

    2. Moth*

      This was my thought too. And maybe even be direct about answering it that way. If he asks, “How are you?”, maybe respond with something like, “Work is going well right now.” That way, you’re answering the question honestly and any follow-ups will center around work. You’re not disregarding how difficult things are in your personal life right now, you’re just not addressing them in your answer. This may not be for everyone, but it’s been helpful for me to answer questions this way when there are things I simply don’t want to discuss with people. I take a page from the politician’s playbooks and answer the question I want to, not directly the question they asked (though sometimes like this, it may even be really answering the question they were intending to ask).

      1. CNM*

        Yes, I was coming here to suggest exactly this. If work is fine, you can answer just that without having a bigger conversation.

      2. Glitsy Gus*

        I think this is a good option. Also, I do think moving things along right away is a good idea. “Work is going well, how are things with you?” Just keep it moving back on to him.

        I don’t want to suggest you are wrong or anything at all, but I may also just throw out there you might want to think about why you haven’t done the ‘swiftly move along’ already. It’s generally how pleasantries go in these situations. If you’re answering with, essentially, “So-so.” then full stop with a pause it does kind of indicate that you want some level of feedback from that answer. While I do think wanting your boss to show a level of concern or care is normal, this person has made it pretty clear they aren’t going to be able to give it to you. Making a point of gliding past the ‘how are you’ portion of the conversation will not only prevent you having to come up with a more accurate answer than “hanging in there” (my personal go-to on bad days) but it will also save the mild awkwardness and disappointment of having your boss not remember what’s going on with you and not be able to sympathize in the way you would maybe like him to.

      3. Alianora*

        Yup, I think this is the boss’s expectation. “I can’t help you with your personal life” is pretty cold, but the fact that he said that tells me he really does mean “how are you (at work)?”

      4. always in email jail*

        “things here in the US office are busy, but going well! How are you all over there?”

    3. Aunt Vixen*

      Yes, this. In his nonfluent English he is asking a different question than it sounds like.

      I’m very sorry about your dad.

      1. Sylvan*

        +1, and trying to do the fine-fine English greeting and getting unexpected results. Not to say, OP, that you have done anything wrong. It’s hard to manage and I’m so sorry you’re going through this.

      2. Alice's Rabbit*

        Oh, good point. Anyone who has taken language classes remembers those stupid conversation exercises, with rote questions and responses. That’s what he’s doing here. Basic conversation starter, and moving straight into the work.

    4. M. Albertine*

      This is how I deal with the question, even without the language barrier. Even if I am visibly not “fine”, if I answer on a business level, the asker will more often than not take the cue I give and continue the conversation in kind.

      I’m so sorry for your loss. My mom died two years ago and I am still hit by waves of intense grief (though not as often). Be as kind to yourself as you can.

    5. Librarian of SHIELD*

      I like this framing. It’s similar to the side-step I used after my dad died while I was in school.

      I think the thing to keep in mind is that there are two kinds of “How are you?” that people use. There’s the one with the sympathetic head tilt and the soft, serious tone of voice that means “I remember that you’re dealing with something difficult and I’m checking in to see how that’s going for you.” But there’s also the light, breezy one that’s mostly synonymous with hello. In the early days of my grief process, if I got the serious “how are you?” I’d respond as honestly as I felt able to do in the moment. But if I got the breezy one, I’d sidestep. “The weather’s been so great lately” or “this geometry assignment’s giving me so much trouble!”

      OP, I think it’s clear that your boss is giving you the breezy form of the question, so feel free to sidestep. It’s not a lie to answer his “how are you today?” with “things are going well here, there’s been so much progress on the Kent account.”

    6. anancy*

      This is exactly what I was thinking also. My suggested response would be to answer it as how work is going, not how you are doing.

    7. ThatGuy*

      This was my thought as well. Perhaps the letter writer should respond with something about work, such as, “My projects are all going well. I expect to complete X on Tuesday.” And simply not mention her personal state at all.

    8. Ele4phant*

      Yes agreed.

      While I’m sure the boss cares about the letterwriter as a whole person, and certainly wants to know if things outside of work are impacting you at work, at the end of the day his main purview is to check in how you are doing work wise and determine if you need anything specific to that context.

      So, just mentally add (with work stuff) at the end of “How are you doing?” And it’ll be a lot easier to respond?

      Of course if your grief is interfering with your work, and you need something from work, let him know that.

    9. Sandy*

      Exactly. I am very sorry for your loss and I know how going back to work and having to respond to constant ‘how are you/your mom/your family’ questions feels like(a lot. It feels like a lot). But you don’t have to fake being okay, just recognize that he’s clearly asking a polite, general question and not responding to your recent loss. You don’t have to be cheery and fake; just be matter of fact and work-related.

    10. Excel Slayer*

      This is why I was thinking. Maybe answer with something like “Well in relation to work, x y and z”.

    11. Alice's Rabbit*

      That’s what I thought, too. Boss has made it clear he wants to keep your interactions strictly business. So reframe it that way, and answer only about work. “We’re a little behind on X project; any idea when Jean will be done with the next step, so we can move forward on our end?” Then, you’re not having to lie, but you’re not having the same awkward conversation over and over again, with both of you getting frustrated by it.
      I know his reaction probably feels cold, but it could be your boss is trying to help, in a very inept way. By trying to force the focus solely on work, perhaps he thinks he’s giving you a break from your grief. Everyone grieves in different ways, and maybe that’s helped him in the past. It’s clearly not your style, but that doesn’t make it a wrong way to grieve. Lots of people throw themselves into work as a distraction, even if only for a few minutes or hours at a time. Just something to think about.

  4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I wonder if he’s thinking that “How are you” means “how are you *work Related* how are you” aka, are you in need of any assistance with anything, do you need a new computer monitor that I can get you, did those TPS reports get to you the way they were supposed to?

    But we’re conditioned to think of “How are you” as “emotionally, how are you feeling right now?”. So perhaps that’s the real miscommunication here. Since he was so chilly with the “I cannot help you with your personal life.” is what triggers that idea in my head.

    So what about saying “Everything office-wise is fine.”? Since he’s clearly weird about your personal emotions [some are like that, they think that work and personal life is extremely different, even when we’re dealing with absolutely gut wrenching real-life, personal life grief like you are right now.]

    I’m so sorry about your father and I’m sorry that your boss is making it difficult for you with this kind of very basic human interaction!

    It reminds me of my mother who’s response is “I don’t know what to tell you” when I bring up something that I’m just spitballing about. My response, since she’s my mom is “I didn’t ask you to tell me anything, I didn’t ask for advice, you asked how I was doing and I told you.” so my kneejerk to “I can’t help you with your personal life” is “I didn’t ask you to.” but you know, don’t respond like that since it’s your boss!

    1. Banana Bread Breakfast*

      We typed up essentially the same response simultaneously! I think it might be extra difficult because everyone has different relationships with their parents and the loss there-of. Some want to talk about it a lot, some want to plow past it and keep it private. It’s such a tricky emotional space that even I, having lost my own father 8 years ago, closely watch other to pick up cues on what type of consolation, if any, they want. I assume nothing. The language and cultural barrier no doubt complicates this even further.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yeah, I’ve lost a lot of various people over the course of my life and watched both my parents lose their parents. So I know how grieving is very personal and different, so I don’t make any assumptions of my own either.

        I just had someone come say “My grandma is gonna die soon, she’s on her death bed. Just giving you a heads up I’ll need some time off probably, I don’t even want to go but you know, family and stuff. Hopefully they plan things so that it doesn’t interrupt my life that much, you know.” [Which I get, my response to my dad’s mom dying was “oh okay.” But yeah, I was a crumpled mess when my maternal grandma passed way. My dad took his brother’s death harder than either of his parents, and his dad’s more so than his moms, etc.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          >crumpled mess
          Yep. That was me after Mom died a few years ago. I suspect your phrase has already embedded itself in my subconscious because it feels so right. Not a hot mess — a crumpled one.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            I literally go into the fetal position, so crumpled is pretty literal. Hot mess to me makes me think of “heat” and the melting effect that you get when you’re in a crowded bar and your makeup starts dripping, lol.

        2. Róisín*

          When my dad’s dad died, he was emotional but not overwhelmed. I’m told he started crying on the first Friday after the funeral — he’d forgotten to turn off his “call Dad” reminder. His sister was crushed. She’d always been daddy’s girl.

          When their mom died, my dad was completely devastated. His sister was too emotional to speak at the funeral (I wound up reading her eulogy for her) but otherwise mostly functional. It was fascinating to see how their grief differed.

    2. Jack Be Nimble*

      That was my read as well — mentally reframing the question as “how’s your work life going?” might make “fine!” feel like a more honest answer. Regardless, I think it’d be perfectly appropriate to respond as if that were the question asked.

      So sorry for your loss, OP!

      1. IHerdCatsForFood*

        So sorry to about your father. I lost my dad when I was a teen, and it’s still tough on me 20 years later. Agree with the other posters. When your boss is asking “how are you” they mean “how are you in the context of work”, not asking about your personal life. When they said they can’t help you with your personal life, blunt as they were, they’re right. When you’re working with a new team who doesn’t know you yet they might see it as not professional or appropriate for a boss to cross that line. For your french team, “ça va” or “ça va bien” are perfectly acceptable, neutral and professional responses.

    3. LunaLena*

      It might not even be a language barrier, but a cultural one as well. I’ve read many times on the Internet that cultural differences mean that sometimes, when someone says “how are you” as a greeting, they’re stunned when the response is a detailed outpour of everything that has been going on, when all they expected was a “fine, how are you?” back. On the flip side, the person being asked generally comes from a culture where you don’t ask “how are you” unless you are actually interested in how that person is doing and/or their personal life, so they assume you actually want to hear all about their day.

      I came from the latter type of culture, and it took me quite a while to get used to social norms here in the US when I moved back. I had to consciously force myself to say “I’m fine” instead of “not great, this happened a couple of hours ago and then I was late to school and I forgot to bring my calculator…” when my friends said “hey, how’re you doing?”, and to stop expecting them to keep offering me chips after I said “no” the first time (I lived in one of those Asian cultures where you don’t accept unless someone offers three times). Over 20 years later, I still sometimes have to remind myself to not respond in certain ways or act in others because it’s just a hard habit to shake.

      1. LunaLena*

        Forgot to add, sorry for your loss OP. It must be really tough to have to work through that.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        That’s true as well. It can vary within the same region even, everyone around here as their own expectations of how someone will respond to a ‘how are you’? So I hate to say this but the US is huge and diverse, what’s the norm in your city may be different a stones throw away in another city. The other city may think “Everyone in City X is such a booger, they never answer my “How are you?” they just launch into what they want! Over here in City Z, we have manners!!!!!!!”

      3. wittyrepartee*

        Yup! Cultural differences are fascinating. It’s unclear what my non-Asian friends think of the fact that I shovel food onto their plates if we’re eating family style.

      4. Micklak*

        As an American, I would be stunned if the response to “how are you?” was a detailed outpouring of everything. “How are you?” has always been a neutral acknowledgement to me, not an actual question.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          This isn’t an “American” thing though.

          Every area, every pocket has their own culture attached. This is the whole “melting pot” thing.

          1. A*

            This! I wasn’t even aware of the cultural differences in interpretation to this greeting until I relocated. I had always lived in major metropolitan cities where everyone is on the go, and pleasantries are just unspoken networking requirements. To me, “how are you?”, unless it was from a close friend/family member, was just a greeting. No different than saying ‘what’s up?’ when you pass someone in the halls – it’s an acknowledgment not a genuine question.

            Then I moved down south to a mini-city and kept getting trapped in extended conversations where people would spill their hearts to me after I asked those magic three words. Oh boy, it was a learning curve!

        2. Forrest*

          Standard meaningless greeting for me, British, in Yorkshire:
          “Eh up, y’oorright?”
          “Yeah, you?”
          “Yeah, not bad.”

          Cashier in rural Illinois (where I visited my then-gf): “Hi, howareyou?”
          Me: “Oh! um, not bad, thanks, um, all right.”
          Cashier: *expression that says, “jesus, I didn’t ask for your LIFE STORY.”*

          (Observing my girlfriend, I realised the correct response was a bouncy and rhythmic, “Good, howareyou!” “Good!”)

          My now-partner is from Dublin, where the meaningless response, is, “Hi, howarya” “Hi howarya!” About a year after we moved to Yorkshire, she came home and said, “I’ve just realised something! When someone says, “y’orright”, that’s just a meaningless greeting, not someone saying, “Oh God, are you OK? You look dreadful! Is everything OK?” She had spent over a year responding to “y’oorright?” with, “Yes, I’m fine! Do I not look fine? Is something wrong? I’m fine, really!”

          1. seisy*

            Oh my God, that one always gets me. I had a roommate who always said, “you alright, love?” And every single time it gave me such a spike of anxiety, like “wait, what’s wrong?” bc my brain always interpreted it as asking if I needed help.

          2. min*

            Yes! I live in the south of England, not the north, but took me forever to get used to, “You alright?”

          3. Mora*

            I always screw this up when I visit family in England!! Some says “You alright” and I automatically say “Fine! How are you?” Even though they usually don’t mean it in that kind of “Tell me the details” way and it’s always awkward for me b/c I am that person.

    4. Dust Bunny*

      I’ve always thought of casual “how are yous” as “how are you [short term/small picture]”. It’s not intended to be a big existential question. It’s how are you in the “was your commute as bad as mine/did the dog puke on the rug overnight/how many shoes did your kid lose this weekend/have you seen all those migrating monarchs/I hear it’s supposed to rain this afternoon thank goodness we won’t have to water” sense. So it’s not inauthentic if your answer is based on the past five minutes/the shallowest part of your morning–a pared-down answer is actually commensurate with the intent of the question. It’s not a request for you to take an inventory of your existence and lay your soul bare.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        This is fair too, lots of people feel that way.

        But in that case how do you respond to people who do overshare with you? Just curious.

        Over the years, I have learned it means different things depending on whoever is doing the asking. So I just take cues from everyone and if someone is prone to spilling their guts, I make a note and approach them differently.

        It’s different in casual interactions, like at a grocery store. But when it’s a coworker/boss kind of thing, you should know each other enough to tweak your approach when necessary. But that could be why I’m oddly good at slipping into any given office, I get a whiff of the stuff going on and follow suit one way or another.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          I listen for a bit and then excuse myself, and remember not to ask them again unless I have an “out”. If it’s a boss, I guess I’m kind of stuck, but if it’s a coworker, I just tell them I have a lot to do or I’m expecting a phone call or whatever. Work should always give you a reason to not stand around chatting for that long.

          (I do have one coworker in particular who will literally tell you her life story if you ask. I would like her as a person except that this is really uncomfortable, so I’ve learned not to engage unless I genuinely can spend a few minutes, and to always have somewhere else to be soon.)

        2. Diahann Carroll (formerly Fortitude Jones)*

          But in that case how do you respond to people who do overshare with you? Just curious.

          When this happens to me, I quickly acknowledge their plight, but then pivot back to whatever work related topic I actually wanted to discuss. This is tough to do though because it can easily come off as callous like the manager in the letter – you have to be adept at striking the right balance between genuine commiseration/empathy and down to business straightforwardness.

    5. DrRat*

      It’s important to remember that in France, work and personal life tend to be divided much more strongly than in the US. So I think this poster is correct; when your boss asks how things are going, he is specifically asking, “How are you WORK WISE ONLY?” So whatever you decide to answer, make it specific to work only. When he asks “How are you?” just respond “Work is going well” or “Things are generally going well, but we have a delay on X project.” I realize this is a big change from how you would normally respond if you are used to the US workplace style, but he’s your boss and you are the one who will have to adjust.

      I think the comment about your personal life was him not necessarily being heartless but trying to draw a line and doing it badly. Here is a link with more helpful info on business communication in France: https://businessculture.org/western-europe/business-culture-in-france/business-communication-in-france/

  5. LadyByTheLake*

    In French the appropriate response is “ça va.” Which, if I am remembering right, is simply “it goes.” But it is the traditional “I acknowledge you fellow human” response.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        +1 from another French speaker (non native).

        I think the standard 《Ça va?》《Ouais, ça va?》 is even more procedural than the English equivalent, which might explain why boss is reacting that way. Like when Gandalf goes off at Bilbo for saying “Good morning.” You aren’t supposed to question the semantics of social grooming.

        I’m sorry for your loss, LW, and I sympathise because I also avoid saying “fine” when I’m not fine. But I keep in mind the idea that it’s procedural/ social contract stuff without intrinsic meaning, so you can answer with something that makes no literal sense. Alison’s suggestions for bland nothings then redirect the conversation are spot on.

        “How are you?”
        “Hey! How was your meeting?”

        “How are you?”
        “It’s good you you stopped by: did you see Fergus’s email about the non-stop spout testing?”

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          It occurs to me that I typically reply to “How are you doing?” with “Getting there, you?” but I’m not sure I would use that with a non-native speaker.

        2. boo bot*

          Yeah, I think it’s throwing the boss off, and giving him the impression that she’s looking for emotional support, rather than honestly answering the question and expecting them both to move on.

          One thing that might make this a little more palatable, OP, is reminding yourself that <> doesn’t literally mean “I’m fine,” even though the two phrases fill the same, “I acknowledge you, fellow human,” slot. Can you try thinking about the exchange more literally?

          “How’s it going?”
          “It’s going.” (I didn’t say it was going *well*.)

          1. Helene*

            I think saying, “Good thanks, how are you?” will work fine. The manager may not have even have known that OP has had this hugely emotional situation, since they are overseas. As a manager it’s hard to know how to handle these situations if you are looking for a one size fits all solution. Some staff get on with work very soon after a sad event and some staff need a lot of time. I think it is a two-way street and is up to OP also to reach out if things are not ok, and say to the manager what they need. This letter is clearly a release of emotions and OP is still very much in the grief process of a simple greeting is hard to return. OP – this is fine. Maybe it is good to chat to your manager about all of this so they know where you are at and maybe if you need more time.

        3. Ella Vader*

          Yes, I would bet that the combination of how the boss learned English and what his primary-language greeting is means that he is expecting a boiler-plate pingback, nothing else. I think it is important to give him a pingback that doesn’t inadvertently signal detouring the greeting into an actual assessment of how the OP is doing or feeling.

          And I don’t think that the pingback needs to be an actual answer to the question, either. My suggestions would be like yours, or else the even simpler,
          “Hello, how are you?”
          “Hello, how are you?”
          I would bet that the boss would continue on from there without even noticing that the question hasn’t been answered, because he didn’t intend it to be a question.

      2. wittyrepartee*

        Do you have an interpretation of the statement “I cannot help you with your personal problems”? I’m very curious whether it’s a language/culture barrier issue, or if the guy was being a bit of a lunkhead. Neither response would surprise me.

        1. I coulda been a lawyer*

          My (admittedly old) experience with a similar issue was partly a translation problem, and partly the boss trying to remember where a conversation can and cannot go when speaking to someone in X country. He didn’t have the right English words to have a personal conversation beyond the very basics (even what’s in your lunch conversations were hilarious) and the instructions for managing Americans were all things you can’t do, like offer a woman an extra morning break if her newborn kept her up all night – it might be misconstrued. He had similar prohibitions for the employees in Mexico and Central America but each was slightly different. He was a great guy, though, and I loved working for him.

        2. The Dig*

          IMO, he was being a bit of a lunkhead, at least in regards to phrasing. But there’s a part of culture barrier as well, I think. For most people in France, “Comment ca va?” is not actually a question, but a greeting. In an informal setting, people may even drop the actual greeting (“Salut”, “Bonjour”, whatever), and just start the conversation with “Ça va?”. And the expectation, especially in a formal/professional setting is that you’ll answer like it’s a greeting: “Ça va, et toi/vous?” . If you have something on your mind and the context allows it, you’ll commonly bring it up later in the conversation.

          So I think that the boss was not expecting:
          1) To be answered something other than “ça va, et vous?”
          2) When answered “Comme ci, comme ça”, to have the problem be a personal one instead of a professional one.

          He was likely taken a bit by surprise. The phrasing is still awful and rough, though.

        3. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

          Since the LW said they were struggling with personal issues and organizational changes issues, I took the boss’s response to mean, “I *can* potentially help you with the work-related issues.” That said, I think it was not the best thought-out response and clearly was difficult to hear from someone so fresh in grief.

    1. RobotWithHumanHair*

      My couple semesters of French would make me think that “comme ci comme ça” might also be appropriate in this case?

      1. Tundra*

        Maybe not necessarily if the boss is using “how are you” in the context of “how is work going?”. Answering “ça va” (it goes) = all good. Answering “comme si, comme ça” (so-so) can leave an opening for the dreaded “why?”. But you’re right; in a normal social context? Either would sound perfectly normal to my French Canadian ears ;-)

      2. The Dig*

        “Comme ci, comme ça” is an unusual answer to the question “Comment ça va?”, at least in France. In a non-professional setting, it might work. But in any case, it will almost invariably lead to a “Why?”, if only because it is a “weird” way to answer.

  6. Banana Bread Breakfast*

    OP, it might help if you internally translate your boss’s “How are you?” to “How is your work going?” because that’s honestly what they’re really asking if they are asking anything beyond the social script. Your boss can’t fix that you’re grieving a parent, but if you’re stressed because of a new deadline, he CAN discuss that. Of course you’re not an emotionless robot that can ignore your personal life while at work, but this is a really difficult topic for many to deal with. Re-framing it in your head through that work-focused lens may help you in the long run.
    My heart goes out to you in your grieving process.

    1. Juli G.*

      That’s my suggestion too.

      “How are you?”
      “Oh, busy with the Michaels project. I’m really pleased with our direction.”

      I’m sorry about your father.

  7. Antilles*

    I made some comment about changes in my personal life as well as the recent organizational changes. His response was, “I cannot help you with your personal life.”
    I hope I’m not the only person whose response to this was “what the hell is wrong with this dude?”
    Like, yes, it’s Technically Correct that you cannot help with someone’s personal life and maybe you did just mean the question as a purely work-related inquiry, but holy heck man. At least give some generic stock “Sorry to hear that, I know it’s been rough with your dad” response.

    1. Jean*

      You’re not the only one. What a socially inept jerk. There’s no language barrier excuse for this.

      1. valentine*

        “what the hell is wrong with this dude?”
        I don’t find him wanting. He wants to stick to actual work. Why not follow his lead and save personal talk for people who can respond the way you need?

        1. Parenthetically*

          Yeah, wanting to stick to work is fine. But he can forking well change the subject in a way that’s less Polar Vortex, FFS. “I’m so sorry. *pause* Are you all right to move on with our meeting?”

        2. banzo_bean*

          Because sometimes how you’re doing personally effects how you’re doing professionally. Having to adjust deadlines/ flex time/shift responsibilities to accommodate dealing with emotional and administrative toll of OP’s fathers death should absolutely be considered by their manager.

        3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          But he asked her to tell him why.

          “How are you?” – “so-so” – “why?” – (answer) – “How dare you answer the question I just asked you!” The mind boggles.

          1. Rugby*

            It sounds like he is using “how are you?” as a polite conversation starter with no expectation of a real answer. “so-so” is the kind of response that requires a follow up question. It would be weirder for him to ignore it.

            1. Mora*

              Yeah..I think the language barrier might be part of the problem. He might not have sounded so abrupt if he was answering in his native language.

              1. your favorite person*

                yeah, I wonder if it was meaning something, “sorry I can’t help with that!” rather than the implied I don’t care about your personal life.

        4. Gingerblue*

          If he doesn’t want to talk about personal stuff, he shouldn’t invite people to talk about personal stuff. In this case, she tried to deflect from personal stuff, and he explicitly asked for more details. Replying to your boss on a topic he has asked a question about is, in fact, following his lead.

          1. fposte*

            He didn’t invite her, though; he asked a polite “How are you?” and assumed that her “So-so” answer was a work-related response, hence his followup. So I don’t think his was the smoothest response, but I also don’t think he changed the rules midway.

            1. Gingerblue*

              Enh, maybe I’m being unreasonably cranky today. But I found his response rather shockingly awful in any context.

              1. fposte*

                I agree that his end statement was pretty hard to hear, but I think also he was caught by surprise; he wasn’t consensually participating in a conversation about OP’s sadness and then froze her out, he thought he was talking to her about work and then she brought up being personally sad.

                I think the American equivalent could be a project status meeting, where the manager went around the table saying “Okay, how are things?” And she heard about the delays in the printing from Jane and the target date for the art from Bob and then when she turned to Fergus he said, “I’m a bit sad.” And the manager follows up in case it’s because there’s bad news about the card stock but it turns out to be about Fergus’s personal life, and the manager is all like whoa, I did not think that was where we were going there.

                1. Gingerblue*

                  Actually, I think that what bothers me here is that there *wasn’t* the sort of context you describe. In your example, Fergus should know what the meeting is about by the time they get around to him; derailing it to talk about his mood is obviously inappropriate. The boss’ response would be still badly phrased, but more understandable.

                  The LW’s boss, on the other hand, has been at minimum unclear on what he’s asking, and the response to finding that he and the only other person in the conversation are talking past each other was to be aggressively unkind–and to someone who has just been clear that they already feel bad. (And then there’s the classic “I’m going to deny you a favor you haven’t actually asked me for” bit.)

                  I mean, I’m very much not a fan of intense personal conversations at work, and I’m kind of baffled by people who feel they need to be 100% authentic all the time. But I still cannot imagine ever letting something like that come out of my mouth.

                2. fposte*

                  @Gingerblue–but to this boss there was; it was a meeting about work. If he’s told something isn’t going well, he’s going to assume it’s a work thing, because why on earth would it be brought up during a work meeting if it weren’t a work thing?

                  I know between coming at it via the OP and coming at it from a different culture it can be hard to feel it this way, but I suspect that’s where the boss was.

                3. Avasarala*

                  fposte, I think you nailed it. It’s fascinating that people can’t see his side of the situation, where he asked a work-related question and his subordinate started to unload about her father…uh… awkward! This seems like a classic cross cultural miscommunication to me.

                4. Mora*

                  Yup agree – I can see where the boss is coming from and I’m sure the language barrier doesn’t hurt. Also, not for nothing, but he is managing from France and this employee’s life situation might not be top of mind for him since he doesn’t see the employee regularly.

      2. Micklak*

        I would chalk it up to a combination of language and cultural differences, but also his expectation was that they were talking about work and the response was “I’m a bit sad.” That’s…awkward.

    2. Banana Bread Breakfast*

      I think this might be a language thing? I get that it sounds harsh 100%, but I could totally see myself saying something similar like, “Well, I unfortunately can’t address your personal struggles, but lets see if there’s anything we can do to smooth the org changes process for you.”

      1. Forrest Rhodes*

        Yeah, I was thinking this too. I’m reasonably okay with my second language, but sometimes getting the subjunctive (“I wish there were some way I could help”) from English to second-language is beyond me—especially in the moment.
        I don’t know what OP’s relationship with the boss is like otherwise, but I’d be inclined to chalk this response up to either language difficulties or the general human awkwardness with death, i.e., not knowing exactly what to say.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          Agreed. Sometimes when I am talking to my husband he will say something that if a native English speaker said I would be pissed about. About both the words and the delivery.

          It took a good number of years but eventually I found a place of peace with knowing that a lot of it is because his first language (Arabic) and his second (French) say things that when translated into English come off harsher than they would otherwise.

          We’re also at a place of peace with him saying stuff because he’s pretty fluent with English these days and only rarely does that kind of thing anymore. Very, very few “tu comprends mal” these days. Je comprends très bien merci beaucoup!

      2. Forrest*

        It sounds like a second-language-failure to me as well, rather than a cultural difference or a total failure of empathy.

        I don’t think the OP is wrong in the least to feel uncomfortable with saying, “I’m fine” when she’s not, but at the same time, it’s not such a common feeling that it would automatically occur to everyone around her that an ambivalent response to “how are you?” was obviously about her dad. My mum died in 2010 when I was 31, and those kind of scripts were so embedded in me that in the first few days after Mum died I had to keep checking myself saying, “Oh I’m fine–oh wait, actually, no I’m not.” I found it very comforting having those kind of low-level social pleasantries stay the same and normal in what felt like bizarre-world.

        I feel like some of the OP’s frustration comes from feeling like people around her *should* recognise that *of course* it’s going to be difficult for her to answer “how are you?” for the next few months—but I don’t think that is a shared or even a common characteristic of grief, even though it is a real and meaningful one for her.

        I am sorry for your loss OP, and I hope you find a way to resolve this specific situation.

        1. ChimericalOne*

          Same. My dad died when I was 15, and I had no hang-ups about answering “How are you?” as a generic greeting in the days that followed. The OP’s grief is her own, and there’s nothing wrong with her feeling that way, but it’s not a universal response, so you can’t expect people to anticipate it (or even necessarily remember it, if they go around saying “How are you?” all day long in a very automatic fashion to everyone else).

          1. Mora*

            Yeah, if someone said “So-so” or “I am sad” if I asked them how they were at work, I would assume they wanted to talk about it further. It would feel rude if I just left it there. I guess you could just say “I’m sorry to hear that.” but it feels to me like I’d be shutting down someone who wants to talk.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Yeah, my instant reaction reading it was to hiss at him. It’s also so odd to me that he forgets the LW has been grieving and lost her dad.

      1. Rachel Greep*

        But how big is this company? How many employees does this manager, who is located in a different country, oversee? If this guy interacts with large numbers of people around the globe regularly and checks in with OP once a week by phone, I could understand that he doesn’t remember she lost her father a couple of months ago. Like some other commenters have said, that time feels much longer to those who aren’t grieving.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          There’s really no excuse I feel comfortable with here, I don’t care if he has several reports and a lot of people to interact with. But again, I don’t think there’s room in the world for a company that’s so huge, that your boss can’t even remember you from the last number he spoke with.

          Everyone has different memory spans but it’s pretty vile to try to excuse yourself from human decency.

          2 months, for a loss of a parent is really little time. It’s pretty awful to put time limits on anyone’s grief.

          1. ampersand*

            Truly. If he’s managing so many people that he can’t remember something as big as “LW’s father recently died,” he needs to make some notes on his reports and refer to them before his conversations. It would be nice if he were part of the solution, like if he quit asking how she’s doing the way he has been (because that line of questioning isn’t going well) or rephrased the question to be more work-oriented.

            1. Mora*

              I guess but jeez. I wouldn’t hiss at him about it. He’s calling from France and doesn’t see this employee everyday, and there’s a language barrier. Meh. I’m not outraged.

    4. Gingerblue*

      “I ACKNOWLEDGE YOU, FELLOW ROBOT. PLEASE INPUT VALID QUERY.”

      Christ, what a total walnut.

      1. VictorianCowgirl*

        Lol!
        This is definitely the vibe that is portrayed for the manager.
        I love the walnut insult.

      2. Micklak*

        Wait, was that meant to be bad? Cuz I want people to talk to me like I’m a robot. Please don’t ask how my weekend was or tell me about your grief. We’re at work.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          And people wonder why hiring managers take “Fit” into mind when they hire someone.

          Go work with robots if you want to be devoid of human emotions. They are out there.

          1. Micklak*

            I fit fine with people who display normal human emotions. But no one at my mostly human office has ever said they are sad. It’s not professional.

            1. Usually Lurks, Sometimes Comments*

              It’s not professional to be sad?! That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Life happens. Sometimes employees are sad because of it. Sometimes that affects their work. You can’t expect someone who is experiencing a loss to just stop being sad for eight hours of every day. Sadness IS a normal human emotion.

              1. Micklak*

                @Usually Lurks, I don’t think it’s unprofessional to be sad. I think it’s unprofessional to say you’re sad at the beginning of every conversation when someone asks “how are you.” If you are sad enough at work that you need to talk about it it should be a specific, private conversation with your boss or HR.

                It might seem callous but I actually expect people to deal with their grief privately.

            2. The New Wanderer*

              I’m not taking a position either way, but I think the point was that saying you’re sad out loud at work is not professional, not feeling an emotion.

              I did accidentally unload some sadness once on an unsuspecting coworker who asked me how I was when I was not expecting the question and was not particularly close to that coworker. I almost never do that (because it’s too personal for work IMO), but it happens. Fortunately he replied with more compassion than the OP’s manager, but I could see how easily it happens in the other direction – ask a seemingly boilerplate question and get a personal response that you’re not expecting. However, dismissing someone’s admitted personal sadness without acknowledgment, especially a subordinate, is not particularly professional either.

          1. Micklak*

            I only ask someone about their weekend if they have already asked me. Like “good, how are you?” if someone asks how are you? I’m not icy, I don’t just like small talk.

            1. boo bot*

              For what it’s worth, I think “How are you?”/ “Fine, thanks, how are you?” is roughly equivalent to
              “I ACKNOWLEDGE YOU, FELLOW ROBOT. PLEASE INPUT VALID QUERY.” /
              “I ACKNOWLEDGE YOU ALSO, FELLOW ROBOT. INTERACTION CONCLUDED.”

              It’s not about the content, it’s about the ritual.

              1. Gingerblue*

                Yeah, this. Sometimes communication boils down to the fact that standing by the copier in silence gets weird.

              2. Micklak*

                I totally agree and go through that ritual multiple times a day because most people I encounter also agree. Now imagine if someone didn’t follow through with the ritual and instead said “i’m sad.”

        2. Antilles*

          Except he *asked* about how she was doing. And after she said “pretty bad actually”, he followed up with a further question!
          If you don’t want to know how someone is, then just say “Good morning” and dive right into your discussion of TPS reports.

          1. fposte*

            He didn’t ask how she was doing, though. He asked “How are you?”, which is a polite greeting that in a lot of cultures, including much of America, is not an inquiry into well-being. It’s also not hugely unreasonable of him to assume in a professional setting that her response was about a work problem, which is why he’d follow up with another question.

            I get that some people would prefer conversation templates to be more literal, but it’s not going to happen, and even with your suggestion you’d be saying “Good morning” to a lot of people whose mornings you don’t really care about.

          2. Koala dreams*

            Oh, but saying good morning would be worse! What if you said good morning to someone who were grieving? That would be mean! /sarcasm

        3. always in email jail*

          I can be the same way. My personal life is my business. I always respond in a work context. “Oh you know, doing well! Prepping for the big event Tuesday and then I can finally catch up on data entry for that annual report that’s sneaking up on us! How are you?” or “Ready for the busy season to be over! how about you?” “Excited about the new staff we just onboarded, it’s going to be great to have more sets of hands with everything we have going on! how about you?” All of those things can be true, even if I’m sad about something in my personal life.

    5. Caramel & Cheddar*

      I just assumed this was part of the language barrier she mentioned — where it might sound like a perfectly normal thing in his head to say, but upon translation sounds very harsh. Now, I don’t know what version of this in French sounds better because my French is also very bad, it definitely felt within the realm of possibility.

      1. wittyrepartee*

        Yeah, I feel like it could be as well. It can go either way depending on tone and cultural context.

    6. MCsAngel2*

      I also think it’s a language barrier thing. The response needed to her answer requires a lot of nuance and comfort with English social norms, and if you aren’t 100% fluent, “I cannot help you with your personal life” is as close as you’re going to get.

    7. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      I’ve had a boss like this (and fwiw, I don’t think it’s a language thing in this case, but there was definitely no language barrier with me and that boss) who was just really inept at dealing with any kind of ‘people’ related interactions, was an inexperienced manager who had been pushed into management and just generally managed to do the wrong thing in pretty much any situation.

      One thing this manager did was that one of our small team was unexpectedly taken seriously ill and he got the call that morning that ‘John’ was in hospital undergoing all sorts of tests etc so obviously would not be at work. This was conveyed to the team as “so John is in hospital with a suspected heart attack so he won’t be back for a while so I need all of you to figure out how to do (the X project that John was working on at that time)”

      I am wondering if the OPs new boss has also recently been ‘restructured’ into being a boss and doesn’t really know how to handle it given that she said she reported to someone else but it has recently changed due to company changes?

      1. Diahann Carroll (formerly Fortitude Jones)*

        This was conveyed to the team as “so John is in hospital with a suspected heart attack so he won’t be back for a while so I need all of you to figure out how to do (the X project that John was working on at that time)”

        OMG, talk about being misquoted, lol.

    8. Mel*

      Could be a language thing. Could be cultural. Like, would it be completely unexpected in France for your to reference your personal life (even something huge like this) at work?

      I don’t know, I’ve only visited briefly, but I know there some different expectations around what’s normal.

      1. Malarkey01*

        Yes, I tried to say this in another post but my experience with Belgium coworkers is that they were pretty formal in the workplace and would never speak about anything in their personal lives at work. I even had a coworker who came back after 4 months maternity leave, and I asked the fairly normal American questions you ask when someone returns (how are you doing?Is she sleeping through the night? Aren’t they just adorable at this age) and everyone looked at me like I had three heads. Afterwards a fellow coworker pulled me aside and said we don’t really share things like that at work, that is more a question a friend would ask. I said well I thought we were all friendly (again not BFFs but you know how you consider most coworkers as not strangers) and she said no, we are not friends, you Americans don’t seem to understand what a friend is…. and that became my motto for that work experience.

      2. wittyrepartee*

        Yeah, it might have been a weird response to a weird response. “woah! we’re off script here! What do I do?!”

    9. WellRed*

      Some people aren’t good with this sort of thing (not trying to excuse him here). Also, though, it doesn’t sound like he’s ever even met the OP. That makes her grief less memorable for him, rather than if he knew her or saw her regularly.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I can agree with this too, with the “aren’t good at this sort of thing”.

        Since my mentor/boss responded with pretty “oh dang” kind of things, he was morbid AF. So when I was like “My partner’s father died, I have to get on a plane tomorrow…” the response wasn’t “oh sucks to suck” or anything but more like “Let’s talk about death now!!!!!!” Yikes city.

        1. wittyrepartee*

          Lol, I’m like this in my personal life. I do my best not to respond like this in my professional life.

    10. Parenthetically*

      I audibly gasped. OP, I would call your boss some kind of Spock-ass robot but I feel like that’s rude to Spock AND robots.

      1. Micklak*

        I think it’s nice to express sympathy for the LW and understand what they are going through. But I also think it’s fair to acknowledge that it could be very off-putting for an employee to tell you they are sad. What do you do with that? Do you probe deeper? Do you try to solve the sadness? Do you express sympathy? I think the boss was genuinely confused by the response and was asking for clarification.

        I wouldn’t tell someone at work that I was sad, especially as a generic conversation starter. I think that was a misfire on the LW’s part and the boss is getting blamed for being awkward about it.

        1. Parenthetically*

          In the conversation she described above, he probed more deeply when she said she was so-so. If he’s not up for hearing about her life, he needs to stop asking her for more detail. It’s rude to say, “Oh, you’re only so-so? Why?” and then respond with absolute icy coldness when the person answers you. In fact, I think OP’s response in that situation was perfectly appropriate — she said she was only so-so because of some personal and organizational changes lately. The polite response to that, if you don’t want to engage further with the personal side, is to say, “Oh yes, let’s discuss the team transition before we move onto the other items on the agenda, then!”

          1. Micklak*

            “Probed more deeply” isn’t an accurate description of asking “why?” I think this boss felt he was having a business conversation and the LW kept turning it into a therapy session.

          2. fposte*

            I think people are replicating the OP’s error here, though, and they’re especially skewed by their knowledge of OP’s situation to interpret the manager’s conversation as personal. But there’s nothing in the manager’s wording to suggest any of this is personal to him or that he expected anything other than work-related reasons for her answers, and if he thinks his employee is reporting something going poorly at work in response to “How are you?”, he’s obligated to follow up.

            So that’s the OP’s misunderstanding and dilemma, too; it’s not just how to answer “How are you?”, it’s how to distinguish when the conversation is personal and when it’s work-related when you’re working across cultures and with this particular manager. At this point, I’d say unless it’s explicitly about her emotions, private life, or father, she should assume the question is work-related.

            1. Forrest*

              Yes, I agree with this too. I don’t think there’s any indication that the conversation has gone personal, and the boss is uncomfortable and awkward when he realises. Which isn’t great! but on a phone conversation potentially with two people who have never met face-to-face and who have a fairly significant language barrier, I can see where it came from.

      2. A*

        I’m starting to wonder if I have a dark spot on my heart for not being horrified at the bosses response. I, of course, feel terrible for what OP is going through in their personal life. However, I also feel bad for the boss! This is uncomfortable and unnecessary. If one of my reports told me they were sad in response to me general greeting/pleasantry, I would 100% assume that it was work related and ask why. If a report of mine is struggling in their personal life, I assume they would respond with something along the lines of “doing alright – have a lot going on in my personal life, but so it goes/such is life!”. Hearing “I am sad” comes across, to me, like they want to be questioned about it and to discuss it – am my mind immediately goes to ‘are they unhappy with their work? Overloaded? Need more flexibility in schedule? Unhappy with me a new manager?’ etc.

        Personally, I’d just say ‘I’m fine, how are you?’ assuming the individual I’m speaking with is aware of the larger context. If that is too difficult, just say ‘doing alright – how are you?’ or something.

        1. Koala dreams*

          Oh, you might be interested in reading the previous post about the oversharing student workers (question 1 at the post from october 8th). There are several scripts for more “polite” (indirect) ways of saying what the boss said. It’s fascinating to compare the two posts!

      3. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        I *am* a Spock-ass robot, and as such, I have self-programmed that if I ask someone “what’s wrong” *and they actually tell me*, the appropriate response is a variant of “Oh, that sucks, I’m sorry to hear it,” regardless of my actual level of interest in whatever the situation is, before I move on to the necessary task-oriented portion of the interaction.

        1. RS*

          Same here. It isn’t hard to express a little sympathy for someone going through a rough patch, then moving the conversation back to work.

        2. Mora*

          Haha yes! I tend to be fairly focused at work so if I’m in the zone all personal interactions are really me just trying to get through the ritual so I can get info I need to get back to work.

    11. Snark*

      In some fairness, my impression is that French work culture is a lot more stratified and hierarchical than ours is, and one’s boss is The Boss, not someone you’d generally be tempted to disclose your emotional state to. Not to say he wasn’t an asshole, but it’s not surprising (assuming my impression is accurate) that he shut it right down.

      1. Parenthetically*

        But dude, he literally asked her why she was only so-so. You can’t probe further into someone’s emotional state and then punish them for answering your g-d question.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          But it’s possible he asked why she was so-so because he thought she meant that *work* was going so-so, which is absolutely the kind of thing a boss needs to know about.

        2. Snark*

          I’m reading his question as “how is your work and progress on your projects going,” and him being surprised when she chooses to answer personally rather than professionally.

          In France, between a French boss and subordinate, I think it’d be really obvious that the boss was asking about professional stuff only.

        3. hbc*

          Yeah, but if the expectation was that she was answering in a work context, then her answer *is* unexpected. I’m not trying to give make an equivalence in terms of intensity, but there are all kinds of reasons someone might feel sad or so-so that we don’t expect to be voiced. “The company intranet cut off Hulu and now my data usage is up.” “My one-night stand isn’t taking the hint.” “My favorite character was killed off in a book I’m reading.”

          They had a mismatch in the scope of the question, which sounds like it was handled clumsily. In the future if he asks, she could say, “Eh, just personal, but [work stuff] is going fine.”

        4. A*

          I don’t understand this. If my report told me in our 1:1 that they were ‘so-so’, I would absolutely question it. In every business environment I’ve worked in (across different locations, employers, & industries) ‘how are you?’ is a greeting/acknowledgment. If my report is choosing to express unhappiness/discontent/not-being-fine to me, and not specifically calling out that it is in regards to something in their personal life, of course I’ll be concerned because I’ll be under the assumption that it is work/workplace related.

          Yes the OP’s manager was already aware of the situation by their 2nd 1:1, but that doesn’t mean that they should assume that being ‘so-so’ is 100% because of stuff unrelated to work. In my experience, most of my reports when struggling with similar situations will express it once – but not repeatedly. So after the initial mention, I don’t view the context of everything they are saying through that lens. And personally I think that’s a good thing. What if OP actually had a work situation going on as well? Fergus was being inappropriate or something. Wouldn’t we all be upset if boss didn’t ask about OP’s response?

          1. Tundra*

            Yeah that’s how I read it as well. It’s very possible that it’s the repeated reference to a personal matter by the OP is what’s putting him off here. Especially since there’s nothing he can do about it. Honestly it would throw me off, too. However, there are better responses than his “I can’t help you with you personal life”. He could/should just stop asking “how are you?” or rephrase it to “how’s work going?” or something.

          2. ChimericalOne*

            Same. I would not have expected the “so-so” to be about the situation I was already appraised of but about something new — and something work-related — that I needed to know.

    12. Jules the First*

      If the new manager is based in France, this may very well be a question of a cultural barrier complicated by a language barrier.
      French speakers use “sorry” a lot less than English speakers – we don’t say “sorry for your loss” when we hear of a death in the family we say “how sad for you”, which can cause a lot of problems!

      As for what to say, I have caused my share of confusion by using the literal translation “It’s going” of ca va when speaking English because to me it seemed more accurate than “fine” (which I would translate as “bien”), so if you can see your way to using ca va to convey that things are proceeding as well as can be expected, I would. If you’re really struggling, you could go with “assez bien” which is more literally “well enough, considering”. I would steer well clear of “comme ci, comme ca” in your response to your manager – that’s a response that should be limited to fairly intimate friends because it carries a cultural expectation that the listener will respond by digging into your reasons.

      I’m sad to hear about your dad – that’s tough.

      1. Koala dreams*

        It used to confuse me too when English speakers said “I’m sorry” in response to someone being sad/having difficulties. My mind went: You didn’t experience X, and you didn’t cause it, why are you sorry? instead of interpreting it as a way of showing sympathy. Culture barriers are difficult.

        1. Mora*

          Yeah I’ve heard that before, and I’ve had people say “Don’t be sorry, it’s not your fault.” And I’m like…
          1) I’m Canadian so I’m sorry for everything and that will never change
          2) I know it’s not my fault but I am expressing sympathy for you now let’s just move on with our day.

      2. ampersand*

        Oh man, “how sad for you” (in English) sounds like it’s one step away from “sucks to be you!” Cultural and language barriers are indeed difficult to maneuver.

        1. Diahann Carroll (formerly Fortitude Jones)*

          Yeah, there’s no way I could say that without sounding snarky.

      3. Blueberry*

        This is a really educational comment, I think. For instance, “How sad for you” would sound like a horrible dismissive response to me, an American, but/and it makes total sense that the same phrase in French has very different connotations.

    13. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      No you are not! I gasped! Was that the language barrier? That cannot possibly be language barrier.

      1. wittyrepartee*

        It could TOTALLY be a language barrier/cultural barrier.

        Language Barrier: The statement “I cannot help you with your personal problems”, said in the right tone to someone could well mean something like “I cannot help you, but I wish I could”, or “I cannot hope to say anything that truly acknowledges the pain that you’re feeling now”.

        Cultural Barrier: It could also be a weird reaction to what seems to him like an inappropriate response. “Oh, woah, we’re off script. WHAT DO I SAY??!!”. Like- imagine you went up to the counter at Starbucks, the barista goes “here’s your coffee, I hope you have a good day!”, you respond “Thanks, I hope yours is wonderful too!” and then they go “actually, I got diagnosed with cancer yesterday.” You might respond weirdly. That’s what culture shock feels like.

        1. wittyrepartee*

          He might be a jerk too! Jerks come from everywhere and speak all languages. However, cultural barriers and language barrier often feel like this.

        2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          I would probably say “wow, sorry” rather than “I cannot help you with that”. Even though I really and truly cannot help them with that!

          1. WellRed*

            As someone pointed out just above, saying sorry in this context would be odd in some languages

          2. wittyrepartee*

            Language is funny in this way. This kind of situation really does require idiomatic and cultural knowledge, and it can get really confusing really fast.

            Consider that in some languages “I’m sorry” is equivalent to “I apologise”.

            1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

              OK in light of that, I amend my answer: I would say *anything* to a Starbucks barista who told me they’d just been diagnosed with cancer before I’d say “I cannot help you with that”. In both languages that I am fluent in.

    14. Tyche*

      Italian here, English is my second language.
      I think it could be a cultural difference and/or a language barrier. It’s very difficult to articulate an answer especially if you are caught off guard. Sometimes I agonize with the nuances of cultural expectations and I tend to sound more abrupt than I like.

      1. wittyrepartee*

        Native English speaker, I speak Spanish and Mandarin with varying levels of proficiency. I feel this!

    15. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      It does sound quite heartless, but I wondered if it was partially a bad translation? (i.e., it came across more brutally than intended) This is one of those situations where I really wonder if we’re missing a cultural dynamic, as well.

      (And of course, I am incredibly sorry for OP’s loss.)

      1. wittyrepartee*

        For instance “I cannot help you with your personal problems” sounds a lot better when you say “there is no way for me to comfort you in your grief”.

    16. Anon for this*

      I’ve worked for a number of French countries and I actually LOL’d at the boss’ response, which to me is SO FREAKIN’ FRENCH. (sorry LW, not laughing at either your discomfort or your loss). The French have a very blunt way of phrasing things and definitely lack in the pleasantries that Americans are accustomed to in the workplace.

      1. wittyrepartee*

        I thought this too. It reminded me of an article that I read about how Notre Dame was dead and should remain in ruins, as it can never really be returned to it’s original state.

  8. Storie*

    Some people are just really incapable of dealing with another’s grief. And some bosses are just never going to be touchy-feely.

    I think the thing to consider is this: do you need for your boss to know how you’re doing as a human? Probably not. Unless it affects your job:responsibilities in some way. If you need a break or to slow down or to have some help, then it’s worth explaining. Otherwise, with this one individual I would just say “fine, how are you?” and carry on. Save your real feelings for closer colleagues and friends and family. It seems absurd with something so huge happening your life. I know grief well and it radiates from all your cels. It took me a full year after losing my mom to feel remotely like myself. But sometimes compartmentalizations for work is the best thing for our jobs, and can also give your mind a little break from focusing on it as well.

    So sorry for your loss!

  9. Jamie*

    OP, I am so sorry for your loss. I know how hard it is to deal with life when grieving and I wish I had advice, but I don’t. Just an internet hug from a stranger if it helps.

  10. GreenDoor*

    Excellent advice. Any answer that immediately shifts the focus from you back to him or to work will do. You could also answer the “how are you” not about yourself at all but about your work or some totally neutral topic. This also has the advantage of meeting the expectation of exchanging social pleasantries. Like
    “I’m relieved that Phase 1 of the project is done – I’ve been eager to move onto Phase 2!”
    “Well I’m happy to report I’ve made some headway with Client X.”
    “I’ve been trying to adjust to some crazy weather we’ve had here lately – it’s been nothing but rain for days!”
    “I’m glad the weekend is coming – I could use a few days of relaxation!”

  11. Rose's angel*

    When my father died going to work was horrible. His death was sudden and we worked in the same industry. An industry he loved. People would ask how are you and I woukd always say working on it. I prefer working on it cause I was fine. I was broken and hurt and fine I was not. But I’m working on it was more accurate. Some of my coworkers didnt know how to handle such a loss so they pretended nothing happened because they didnt know how to handle it and it was so awkward . Im sorry to hear about you dad OP. Its not better today but youll get there.

  12. Commenter1000*

    Just an idea, but I got tired of the “how are you” “find and you” ritual about 6 months ago and just…. stopped answering the question. People say “how are you?” and I just say “hey! how are you?” They say fine, and we move on. No one has noticed.

    Also, sorry about your dad. I lost mine about 7 years ago, still sucks. Things will get better with time though, I promise.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Come to think of it, I do that too sometimes. If I have a migraine, I often will answer “Good to see you!”
      I hope I’m not teaching bad habits to some of my overseas co-workers.

    2. Tau*

      This isn’t intentional, but my brain tends to put all rote politeness phrases into a big bucket and retrieve them at random. Which means I have absolutely answered “how are you” with “thanks, you too”, “no problem” or “have a nice weekend” before.

      Nobody’s said anything, but I have gotten some weird looks.

      1. LilySparrow*

        Ha! Yes, I do this too. Sometimes when servers say “enjoy your meal,” I’ll reply with “thanks, you too!”

    3. pentamom*

      I usually just say fine thanks. I think Random Cashier is sometimes a bit put off by my “lack of courtesy” in not inquiring back, but really. I didn’t particularly want to be asked by a complete stranger who had no actual interest, so I won’t ask someone else the same thing in return. I understand they’re often required to do it by their jobs, so I answer politely, without encouraging further interaction.

    4. Isabel C Kunkle*

      I think this is/was actually standard in upper-class Victorian circles: the answer to “How do you do?” a la My Fair Lady, was just to ask the same question in response.

  13. Sara*

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    I think a good approach is to avoid thinking of this as asking about your emotional well-being. As a previous commenter said, think about this in terms of work progress instead. I would answer something like, “I’m keeping busy,” “I’m getting a lot done,” or “I’ve been productive on _____ project,” and deflect immediately by asking how your manager is doing. Some people are just really work focused and forget the human aspect, and when those types are in charge, there’s not much else to be done. Good luck.

  14. Womanaroundtown*

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    Echoing everyone else: if he is saying to you “ça vas?” Simply respond “ça vas.” French is very rote that way – often that is just the greeting and the real “how are you” will come after if it’s coming at all. If he is following that up with a question, then the answer is different, but I think you can simply reemphasize “ça vas” and it will take care of the issue. I know how frustrating this can be to tell though if you’re having phone conversations – I lived in France for a few years and was always confused when what I thought it was just politesse and ended up being a real question.

  15. anon9*

    I’m sorry about your dad, LW. I have learned from interacting with some people that ignoring or glazing over things like that is what keeps them emotionally detached from others at work (good thing!) and if you are having a hard time focusing on work, then they will want you to take time off or see a grief specialist; it can come off as harsh but death is a tricky topic and people get very weird about it (understandably).

    Your boss’ response of “I can’t help you with your personal life” makes me think the question of “how are you” is being asked with a different intention though. I don’t know about French work culture around the question, but is he asking “how are you in your work?” rather than in general? Since there is a language barrier, I think the question is being misinterpreted a smidge. I just hope so because he sounds kind of callous…

  16. InnocentBystander*

    I’m pretty sure the biggest disconnect with the “can’t help you in your personal life”’response is a cultural one.

    1. Misquoted*

      That’s my thought, too. It sounds callous to an English-speaking ear, but I wonder if it’s really the product of the language barrier. I don’t speak French, but when speaking English with my German relatives, I occasionally hear them say something in English that sounds really cold and unfeeling, when actually it’s not meant that way at all (I know this because I know them pretty well)…it’s more about subtle word choice and tone.

      My condolences, LW. May your father’s memory be a blessing.

    2. JC in MN*

      So sorry about your loss, letter writer. And all the additional weight and work that come with loss as well.
      Thinking about this potential cultural miss by your boss – one idea might be to provide a written 1:1 update/agenda ahead of your phone conversation. First, it allows you to craft your message which may allow for better cross-language communication. You could include categories such as “For Discussion” and “FYI.” If the problem is that your boss is forgetting your personal situation, you could use this to remind them prior, without having to do it verbally each time. It also allows the conversation to be focused on different sections – helping to parse work topics from updates on intersecting personal ones.
      Hoping this awkwardness eases over time. Sending comfort!

  17. Lime Lehmer*

    OP, consider responding with a partial non sequitur like “it is a beautiful (or rainy) day here, how is it where you are?”
    It is a response, you get away from anything personal and it moves the conversation along.

    Your boss’s “Hi! How are you?” is really just a pro forma greeting, and it would be better for you if you could just hear the Hi! and essentially ignore the “How are you?” He really isn’t checking in on your well being, he is just opening a business conversation.

    My condolences on the passing of your father.

    1. Not Fine LW*

      I know it’s a pro-forma greeting. I like your suggestion of detouring to the weather – I may do that. Part of me would just prefer to jump into work and avoid the greeting. Or ask me about the current work project, etc. But I will keep your suggestion of weather in my mind.

  18. Ella*

    Perhaps you could make your response fully focused on work? So if he asks “how are you” you respond “work is going okay.” That way you’re not saying you personally are okay, but you’re still answering is question with a platitude that would, hopefully, not lead to him prying further into what’s wrong.

  19. rayray*

    I remember going through this after my BIL had committed suicide. It was a weird time. Plenty of people talked to me, some were kind and helpful to talk to while others tried but really missed the mark (“how selfish to take your own life!”). I kinda didn’t want to talk about it, but when people ask how you are and you’re still in shock or grieving, it’s tough to know how to answer. Some people aren’t comfortable discussing feelings some are. I think you’ve been given good advice. It leaves it open that you arent necessarily fine,eave it open if someone wants to talk with you and also let’s the small talk close.

  20. Colette*

    First of all, late August is very recent when you’re dealing with grief, so to the OP this is a fresh wound, and it probably will be for quite a while. That’s normal.

    However, the boss has probably had a lot of stuff happen since then (kids back to school, illness, messy life stuff) that makes it seem much longer ago than it was. The boss is not grieving this death, and is not dealing with the aftermath. That’s also normal. It’s not personal to him the way it would be to the OP, so “how are you doing” is likely just the social pleasantry it normally is.

    At the same time, it’s probably better for everyone if the OP just answers “fine”. Her coworkers know that she lost someone she loves. They’re not going to take a “fine” as anything other than a social pleasantry, and it reduces the expectation on them to comfort the OP – and it reduces the expectation on the OP to make them feel better about making her feel bad. It’s not a betrayal of your grief to take the path of least resistance when it comes to social pleasantries.

  21. Artemesia*

    A tough time for you and of course you are sad — been there, it is tough, but in the workplace this is entirely a social ritual and not a question and you really must, especially with an off site boss, learn to respond as a social ritual and not as if it is about your integrity and authenticity. ‘Hanging in there, how are you doing?’ is perfect and avoid the ‘fine’ that you want to avoid without acting as if he asked a question — because he didn’t. Answering ‘I’m sad’ is begging questions and as inappropriate as ‘I have diarrhea’ — no one is asking a question when they say ‘how are you?’

    1. Snark*

      Exactly. The cashier isn’t concerned that you didn’t find everything you were looking for, either. It’s just a script we all read in certain social situations.

      1. Dana B.S.*

        So in retail, I would actually try to assist a customer if they said they hadn’t found what they were looking for. But often, the customer would usually be fine with what they picked out if it meant they would have to get out of line, go to the place where I told them to go, pick a color, find their size, try it on, and get back in line. Now the boss is not interested in helping at all, but even if he was – what could he do? Do you want his help?

        1. Desperately seeking a cute kitty*

          Yeah, that soapbox isn’t really accurate or relevant to OP’s situation because from my experience in retail, “Did you find everything you’re looking for?” functions as a way to prevent lost sales.

          1. Dana B.S.*

            Lol, my meaning got lost! I meant: What is your desired result from telling the truth?

            Also, I worked in a cheapo, casual store with an average price item of probably $7. We tried to cultivate a customer experience of feeling welcomed & appreciated to make repeat customers rather than chase after every $ each visit. That part of my comment is not relevant to the point, but I was trying to jump off the point made by Snark that even if the question is sincere – what does it do for you?

    2. pentamom*

      I’m also thinking that best case scenario, the person who asks that question, if they actually know you, is asking *in light* of your grief. They know you’re sad, but they want to know how you’re coping within that reality. If you reply that you’re sad, then the person’s mind might go to, “Oh, no, did their dog die? Is another relative sick? Is there more going on?” Because the assumption is that the questioner already knows you’re sad about the loss, and is asking around that reality.

      But I think in this scenario, in a work situation with an off-site boss, the more likely case is that it is just a social ritual and not an inquiry seeking an accurate assessment of your current state.

  22. Seeking Second Childhood*

    OP I’m a few years out from my mother’s death. It hit me very very hard. I too had trouble saying “I’m fine” — instead, I said “I’ll be fine.” It’s a subtle difference, but it worked for me. Sort of like a mantra: reminding myself that my feelings won’t always be so raw. As time passed, I switched to “Well enough.”
    If they addressed me first, I followed both of those immediately with “Thanks, and you?” And I used both as a rote lead-in to “What can I do for you today?” or “Can I can help you with something?”
    Maybe you can use some part of this to get through your day. Hang in there!

    1. pentamom*

      Also, “I’m fine” can just mean “I’m doing reasonably well in light of my circumstances.” It needn’t mean that you have literally nothing in your life that is less than fine, or worse.

      1. Asenath*

        And “I’m fine” stops further talk since it’s seen as just an automatic response. I’ve used “I’m fine” many, many times when I wasn’t fine at all, but didn’t want to talk about what was wrong. A quick “I’m fine” and I could move on past the point in the conversation when the other person might ask personal questions I wasn’t able to answer – or at least, not without being afraid I’d break down. In this particular case, though, I’d suspect a misunderstanding due to language and/or culture and/or the difficulties of communicating only on occasion and at a distance. I wouldn’t put too much weight on the boss’s response, but I would find a way of avoiding similar ones in the future – a number have been mentioned above.

  23. Snark*

    At the risk of being a little blunt, OP? You do not need a way answer “how are you?” because you do not want to answer “fine.” You just need to answer “fine” and move on. I sympathize with your impatience with bullshit in a time of profound feeling – a time that understandably makes you want to cut the shit and speak your truth – but cashiers, bosses, and distant acquaintances do not need or particularly want your truth.

    Your boss has made it clear that he’s asking the question not because he cares – he doesn’t, he said he can’t help with your personal life – but because it’s a standard, pro forma English greeting. “Fine” does not need to be literally true, it’s just the expected, pro forma reply. Just go through the motions.

    1. banzo_bean*

      Alison very clearly lays out in the letter why she doesn’t not instruct to go through the motions with the standard “fine” response here.

      1. Snark*

        ….yes, and I happen to not agree with that. I don’t think one needs to worry about emotional honesty when engaging in scripted pro forma interactions.

      2. A*

        And?

        I understand that this is a sensitive topic given the situation OP is in, but how is this different than any other letter? Commenters will sometimes have different opinions than Allison. That’s the joy of the comments section.

    2. Shiny Onix*

      Snark has said this harsher than I was going to, but, yes.

      It might help to reframe it in your head. You say “fine” not because it’s true, but because some people don’t deserve to know how you really are. I came across it a lot in babyloss circles, where sometimes your answer to “do you have kids” is “no” – which is not ~true~, but Random Stranger (or apparently, your boss) don’t deserve to know about them.

      I am so very sorry for your loss.

      1. Snark*

        And it might not even be a question of who deserves to know! It’s just, there are some people who you can disclose your emotional state to, and some people who you just say fine to and move on, and it’s not betraying your grief or your loved one’s memory to not tell a socially maladroit boss on a different continent that you’re fine and briskly shift to discussing work.

    3. CR*

      Agreed. I think it’s unfair to get upset when you give a non-standard response and get a non-standard answer.

      1. Snark*

        In fairness, the non-standard answer was weird and offputting too, but….now that you know where he stands, it’s just not the time/place/person to disclose your emotional state. If it helps, frame “how are you doing?” as a question about your work projects.

        1. Not Fine LW*

          Trust me, after the 2nd 1:1, I will make a point to talk work only. Thanks for your input.

          1. Avasarala*

            FWIW, I think this is also a “read the situation” issue for both sides.
            On a work call, boss is clearly expecting to talk about work. So maybe save your more honest answers for when you go visit France or he comes to the US and you go to a nice brewery or cafe or something with an “after hours” vibe.
            Despite it being a work call, you are going through a really tough time, and it would mean a lot to you to have that acknowledged. Your boss could take a moment to say, “Hope you’re hanging in there despite everything” or something to that effect that you would appreciate.

            Maybe making that sort of thing explicit would help strengthen your relationship and make communication easier overall.

    4. Forrest Rhodes*

      First, my condolences to you, OP. It’s tough to deal with a parent’s death; even knowing that it’s imminent doesn’t ease the pain.
      I’m also seconding Snark’s suggestion. When my dad died, my mom and I actually talked about this; we decided there was real benefit in the pro forma response.
      There were some people we wanted to give a bit longer response; to others, we didn’t. There is no shame and no harm in offering a nod, a quiet “Fine, thanks. And you?”, and then moving on. You’re allowed.
      The death of someone you love is one of those things that you never get over, but you can get past. I’m sending you all best wishes.

    5. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I dunno. I’ve done that myself before when going through personal crises (emergency eye surgery that it took a month to recover from, divorce, probably my dad’s death – I don’t remember what my interactions with coworkers were in the first couple of months after it – I suspect they didn’t know, with the exception of my boss who’d approved my bereavement leave). They’d ask me how I was doing, I’d smile and say fine! And then months later, they found out that I had not, in fact, been fine. It came as a surprise to me, but their feelings were hurt when they found out I had kept them in the dark. I’m guessing they thought it looked like I did not even trust them enough to tell them that I was leaving my husband, whom they’d met, and moving out of his house, that they’d been to – and they were right – I did not, in fact, trust them. But they did not need to know that, and it kind of made me feel bad that they’d caught on. So these days, most of the time I say something like “hanging in there”, or “how’s it going?” – “oh it’s going”, or “I’m doing alright, how about you”, that sort of thing. I notice that hardly any of my coworkers answer with a cheery “fine!” as well. And that’s fine with me.

    6. A*

      I agree. It might sounds harsh – but it’s one of those ‘it is what it is’ situations. It can hurt when grieving, but it’s a societal norm – you can absolutely choose to approach it differently, but then you are going to throw people off and potentially get responses that are not ideal for you.

    7. Lynca*

      So my dad died in a painful, traumatic way that people had a lot of unwanted opinions about. I’m still raw about it 4 years later and don’t know when it won’t be an open wound.

      Your boss isn’t going to be sympathetic. Not everyone is and that really sucks. But I 100% agree that it’s not betrayal or wrong to just say “I’m fine” as social lubricant to keep things rolling smoothly. Even when you want to run screaming and crying out of the building or feel so overwhelmed by your emotions you can’t stand to be there. I’ve been there.

      I believe fully in being honest about your feelings but you shouldn’t cling to it so fully when people will hurt you/make you feel like crap for it.

  24. Manders*

    OP, I’m so sorry about your dad. My mom died in January and I definitely went through that stage of getting tripped up by those “How are you/How’s it going” pleasantries. It’s normal and it will start feeling less awkward eventually, I promise.

    It might help if you mentally edit his question to “How are you at work.” Use that as an opening for mentioning any work-related problems, upcoming absences to deal with family issues, etc. It sounds like your boss is already pretty disconnected from your day-to-day, to the point that he’s not remembering very important details about your life, so this repeated question might be his way of trying to prompt you to bring up any workplace issues he can’t see because he’s not in your office.

    (Also: Being managed by someone who’s overseas and who doesn’t seem particularly interested in you probably won’t be great for your career. I wouldn’t recommend job searching while you’re in the freshest stages of grief, but when you’re feeling better, you might want to consider whether this setup is something you want to deal with long-term.)

  25. many bells down*

    I feel you LW, I also hate the “hey how are you fine and you” ritual. If it’s morning, I often rely on “ask me after coffee” with a smile, or “vertical!” delivered in a cheery tone.

    I didn’t have to go to work after my dad died, so I avoided that at least.

  26. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I had a boss who was like this. He really, REALLY thought he was Jed Barlett, but he was more of an unfunny Michael Scott.

    The office could be burning down, but unless you explicitly told my boss the place was on fire, he’d continue the weekly staff meeting, checking off items. I had a coworker openly bully and roll eyes at people, including me, in front of him, and he would always claim he never picked up on “any miscommunication issues.” (Yes, that’s what he called it.) When employees brought office-wide issues to him to address, he’d always ask, “Well what would you do differently?” until one very upset and crying employee said, “Not take this job.” He stopped after that.

    But the worst part was when my kid was chronically ill and I was having surgery. I must have told my boss a MILLION TIMES about these issues separately. But whenever I needed time off or he saw me in crutches, I’d have to explain the issue again. Every. Time. And he’d always say, “Oh I never knew that. I’m sorry.” Then Groundhog Day would reset, and I’d be hurt.

    Until one day, I dropped my rope. I stopped expecting him to remember anything of importance. Whenever I had to refer to my kid or my surgery, I wouldn’t and instead do what AAM said, “It’s all good. How are you doing?” And my boss never bothered to inquire further. Because let’s face it…he didn’t really care. He needed to be able to tell everyone else that he did.

    I don’t think your boss is that clueless or insensitive, but you should drop your expectations of him. His failures are about him, not you. Try to keep that in mind the next time he’s insensitive.

  27. Dana B.S.*

    I’m so sorry that you’re going through this. Just know that this phase won’t last forever – your dad wouldn’t want for sadness to be your only feeling for the rest of time. For now, can you just immediately change the subject to work when the question comes up? For instance, “Well I’m worried we won’t be able to make this deadline” or “I’m pleased that the approval for this project came through.”

    I was 19 when my dad died and I frequently either deflected on “how are you” questions like above. I did tell my closest friends about his passing and how I felt, but I was a freshman in college and most of my friends were brand new. So I just didn’t focus on being sad in certain conversations. I know this doesn’t sound healthy at all, but it did really help. It wasn’t numbing my emotions, but feeling multiple things. Yes, I was grieving, but I wasn’t *only* grieving. I still watched movies and took classes and lived my life – which is exactly what my dad would have wanted!

    Again, I’m so sorry.

  28. Sheik Yurbooti*

    “I cannot help you with your personal life.”

    What the hell. OP, so sorry for your loss. As someone who lost their father this year, I can sympathize with what you are going through at work. Forget about the language fluency with your manager, you have a incompetent manager. Of course he/she cannot help you with your personal life, but that is no excuse for being tone-deaf on someone’s feelings and not understanding that personal relationships with their staff is important. Knowing what is going on with someone’s personal life and being sympathetic is necessary for a manager — especially when there is a loss of a family member.
    Having to answer the question of “how are you?” was difficult for me. I didn’t want to answer but I was also touched that people were truly concerned for my grieving.

    1. Malarkey01*

      I only want to say that in different cultures “personal relationships with their staff is important” and “knowing what is going on with someone’s personal life and being sympathetic is necessary for a manager” is a very cultural specific (and usually North American) stance. Since the OPs boss is French speaking, this would not be a typical attitude for their workplaces. Office and personal life are very separate and most people do not know what is occurring in each other’s personal life (and it would be very rude to inquire). Americans tend to have less “walls” between home and personal (as another example from the other side is it would be extremely rude to ask someone what they do in a social setting- which is usually the most common question people in America ask when they meet people for the first time socially).

      1. Not Fine LW*

        Actually, my boss is French, from France. I am Canadian, and our ganization is Canadian, but global. This is the first time where I have encountered the complete separation to “how are you”. But I know it’s lip service, non-sequitur from him, etc., so I was hoping to avoid the “fine”. But thank you – it helps to have confirmation of what I had assumed based on this.

      2. wittyrepartee*

        And in some places it’s totally normal to ask what someone’s salary is in a personal setting, which would break a good number of monocles in the US.

  29. bdg*

    OP, I’m so sorry. My dad also died in August. I work with a lot of people who knew him and worked with him, so in many ways that’s helped — they were all aware he was sick, and word spread quickly when he died.

    In general, I think of the “how are you” in terms of my relationship with the person. If someone I don’t know well asks how I am, I say “fine,” because as far as I’m willing to discuss with them, I am fine. But for work friends, the ones I would be willing to discuss things with, I’m more honest.

    It sucks though. I still cry at work some days (am crying now haha). I still kind of forget he’s dead and then it hits me again. Working at the same company as my dad did helps, though. He loved his job a LOT and he’d be disappointed in me if I let my performance suffer.

    I hope you’re doing ok. The Ball and Box analogy is really so spot on. I’m fine until suddenly I’m not, but it happens less frequently than it used to, so I hold on to that.

  30. All out of bubblegum*

    I don’t like answering the “how are you question” either.
    So I don’t. Most people do not want a ‘real’ answer, they just want an answer.

    So..
    “how are you?” —
    “Good morning!”
    “Hi Coworker – love your shoes/pen/earrings/tie”
    or answer question with a question:
    “Hi! Reference to our last interaction! (ie did you find the document, or hey! how was lunch, or did you get home on time/work late)?
    “Hey is it wear color day? I missed/got the memo!” (this is said when HAY asker is wearing the same color as myself or the same color as anyone in near vicinity)

    1. Budgie Buddy*

      Solidarity fist bump! I also employ judicious non-sequitors when this question gets too much. If people notice they never say anything.

  31. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

    When Finnish people study English, a decent teacher will explain what “how are you” means and what it doesn’t, because a literal translation can give the wrong impression. This explanation is usually something like this:

    When English speakers ask “how are you”, it’s just a polite greeting, they aren’t interested in what’s going on in your life. The correct answer to “how are you” is “I’m fine, thanks, and how are you?”, no matter how you feel and it’s not a lie to say that because it’s a standard greeting thing.

    After reading this question, it seems to me that this isn’t quite so simple for all English speakers, after all…

    1. LunaLena*

      I noticed that when I lived in Korea too. English class was taught as conversations rather than vocabulary, so “how are you” was often taught as part of the larger conversation of “how are you” “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks.” You weren’t simply being taught “how are you” as a literal translation of an equivalent Korean phrase, it was more taught as a step in a social ritual. I never really thought about it since I could speak English already and therefore didn’t pay much attention in class, but I can see how going off-script with something like “so-so” or “I’m sad” instead of “Fine, thank you” could really throw off someone who was taught English in this way.

      1. Avasarala*

        Taught the same way in Japan. It would be very odd if an English-speaking subordinate responded to their Japanese-speaking manager “I’m sad” and then was hurt/shocked at the response.

  32. hiptobesquare*

    I am dealing with some grief in my life too and I’ve found it helpful to just say “ok” to people I don’t really want to explain it to.

    My french is rusty, but I would imagine a blase “bein” would be fine to just get past it? Bein translates to “well” instead of Bon which is “good.”?

  33. Hedgehug*

    Firstly, I am sincerely sorry for your loss and all of the reality changes that have come with it. That’s very tough.
    A lot of the commenters so far have given good advice and perspective.

    I think for you, naturally this is your life and it’s all you are thinking about. But when we are grieving, we forget that the people around us have their own lives are not consumed with your reality. How can your boss forget you are grieving the loss of your father? Because it’s not his father, his life, or his reality.
    When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I had to stop expecting people to remember what I was dealing with, because they’re dealing with their own stuff. And add to that that your boss is overseas, so he is extra removed from you. Personally, as tough as this may be to swallow, I would stop expecting him to remember your grief, because bringing it up at every phone meeting is going to exasperate him. It’s harsh, but in this case I think it may be the truth.
    As everyone else here has said, when your Boss asks how you are doing, he is not asking you on a personal level. I know you don’t want to lie because you want to be truthful and honest and authentic, but he is not asking you to be your “authentic self” at work. “You-Lite” as Alison has written about previously. Everyone on here thinks his “I cannot help you with your personal life” response was dick-ish, but as an ethnically French person myself….I can tell you this is a normal response. Is it cold? Yes, but it’s not meant to be mean-spirited. He’s basically just saying, “I only have time on this phone call to discuss work and only work. I have no other relationship responsibilities with you.”
    Again, I really am so sorry for your loss. It’s awful, and it’s still raw for you which is completely understandable. But I think what is best for you is to just…leave it at home when you come to work at best as possible. The office is not the appropriate space to talk about grief, it is not an emotional support system, it is not structured for it.

    1. Colette*

      Yes – and I think after a certain point, answering that you’re sad or struggling comes across as wanting more emotional support than a coworker or boss can offer. It’s important to remember that while you’re grieving, your coworkers also have things going on in their lives, and they may not have the emotional capacity to give you the support you may need.

    2. Not Fine LW*

      This helps, thank you. I will certainly keep it work-focused and side-step the question for the next 1:1.

  34. Student*

    He’s asking about work, right? So answer explicitly about work: “Work’s going well, thanks.” “Work is fine.” That’s neutral and unproblematic.

    1. Snark*

      Another good approach. Or just move straight into discussing work! “How are you?” “Well, the llama grooming for year end went well, we’re at draft stage on the ear scratch report, and….”

    2. Jennifer*

      I said basically the same. He’s really asking “how’s work going?” and she’s answering as if he’s asking “how are you dealing with all of the challenges in your personal life?”

    3. Rugby*

      I agree. Boss has made it clear that he wants the conversation to focus on work. OP should follow his lead and leave personal stuff out of it.

    4. fposte*

      I like this one because it gets the OP off the hook that makes her uncomfortable and answers, I think, in the way the manager was asking. “The project [or whatever] is going well” could work too.

  35. Jennifer*

    I think I would answer only in the context of how I’m doing work-wise. Your boss doesn’t seem interested in how you’re doing personally, which sucks but he seems to be lacking in EQ or missing a sensitivity chip somewhere. I think you’re trying to have a more authentic exchange with him but he’s just not that person. I’d say something like, “stressed about this meeting coming up today” or “glad the week is almost over” something like that.

    Sorry about your dad.

    1. blackcat*

      I say this as someone who loves spending time in France, but I don’t think this guy is missing a sensitivity chip. I think he’s French. And being more distant emotionally with coworkers because that’s normal in France.

      1. Jennifer*

        I understand cultural differences, but isn’t the fact that someone might be sad after a loved one dies pretty universal?

        1. Jules the First*

          It is universal to be sad after a death. The cultural barrier the LW is running into is that in France it’s not an appropriate subject for a conversation with your manager (unless the outcome of your conversation is “dear boss, I am incapacitated by my grief and will need time off every Thursday for therapy.”)

          1. Jennifer*

            I understand the cultural barrier. I still think the guy’s an arse. You don’t say that to someone who lost their dad.

            1. Jules the First*

              Except that by responding to her boss with “I’m sad”, the LW has just come out with the cultural equivalent of announcing they’re wearing lime green underpants. It may be true, and it may be a mitigating factor if their work quality was uneven (maybe LWis having an allergic reaction to the lime green dye), but it’s a wildly inappropriate thing to say to your boss (in that culture) and even the best boss can say the wrong thing in that context.

        2. VelociraptorAttack*

          The cultural difference isn’t that he’s surprised she’s sad… he’s surprised that she is bringing it up with her boss in response to what likely seems to him as a “how are you professionally” question rather than “how are you holistically, as a person”.

          1. Jennifer*

            I basically said as much in my comment. I still don’t think cultural differences are an excuse, but it’s her reality and she has to learn to work with it. Responding in the context of work is the answer.

            1. Avasarala*

              “I don’t think cultural differences are an excuse”–so you judge people by one set of rules even though you know they’re playing by a different set of rules? That’s not going to win you allies in a multicultural setting.

              1. Jennifer*

                Lol no. I don’t think cultural differences are an excuse to behave like an arse and I think you guys are giving him too much credit. I understand cultural differences but I think people give people too much leeway sometimes when they are just being cruel.

      2. alienor*

        That’s what I thought as well. I can imagine pretty much every French person I’ve known saying something like “I cannot help you with your personal life” and then being surprised when the person they’re speaking to is hurt by that. It’s just a different culture. And, I would bet on language also being a factor – I learned French as an adult, and there’s a lot I don’t know just because I didn’t grow up as a French speaker, watching my parents and other adults in social situations. So even if the boss is mostly fluent, there are probably things he doesn’t know you’re supposed to say that seem obvious to English speakers.

  36. somebody blonde*

    I would answer “everything at work is fine.” That seems to be the question he’s actually asking, so you should answer that one rather than answering it for your whole being.

  37. blackcat*

    I do not know a ton about French workplace norms, but what I do know suggests talking about your grief isn’t appropriate in the workplace.

    If you’re being asked “Ca vas?” Just say “Ca va.” If he’s asking you in English, I’d just respond with information about a project, as others have suggested.
    “How are you?/How’s it going?”
    “I made progress on X this morning, but I need to send you some questions” “The TPS report should be in your inbox in half an hour!” etc

  38. Buttons*

    I am so sorry for your loss.
    There are certain people who ask “how are you?” and they mean you personally, and there are others who ask “How are you?” and they mean in the context of your relationship. My great-grand boss isn’t asking about me personally, he is asking about me as Job Title of Company. Thankfully, my direct boss and I get along well and know enough about each other personally we can ask “how are you?” and that means “how are you and your husband doing since his mom passed away?” “How are you recovering from your sprained ankle?” Your dad passing away is the most important thing happening to you right now, unfortunately you haven’t had enough time to develop a close relationship for him to be thinking about you in that context.
    Good luck to you and your mom. *hugs*

  39. Apt Nickname*

    Don’t tell friends about your indigestion.
    “How are you” is a greeting, not a question.
    -Arthur Guiterman

    But truly, “How are you” is a social ritual and not a heartfelt inquiry into your wellbeing. If you feel a response of “Fine” is shallow, remember that the question is equally so.

  40. CookieWookiee*

    OP, my condolences on your loss.

    For various reasons I’m rarely “fine” at work. Usually it’s more like “I feel like 10 lbs of crap in a five pound bag, thank you for asking.”

    But rather than get into all that, I generally answer “I. am. FABULOUS!” very enthusiastically and with a grin plastered on my face. It usually triggers a laugh or at least a smile in the other person and (so far) always heads off any further discussion. Because clearly I’m being sarcastic, but the “positive” response means they can happily ignore the subtext and move on with their day.

  41. nnn*

    Another option is to answer the “How are you?” with the immediate work issue that needs addressing.

    “How are you?”
    “Confused about the TPS reports.”

    Or if there’s no immediate work issue that needs addressing, you can name what you’re doing and turn it back on them with “You?”

    “How are you?”
    “In search of coffee! You?”

  42. Beth*

    How about “Assez bien”? It just means “good enough”, and doesn’t mean “fine” at all.

    1. banzo_bean*

      No, assez bien is closer to “rather good” or “pretty good” and not at all close to “good enough”.

  43. Koala dreams*

    Sometimes when we go through difficult times, our brains focus on the small things, as a way to stop thinking about the big and difficult questions. This small problem suddenly take up all your thoughts and you don’t know why. I get that feeling when reading this question. Usually you know that the purpose of asking “how are you” is not to elicit a factually correct description of your life situation, the purpose is to signal the start of the conversation, like the curtains opening at the start of a play in the theatre. Are the curtains lying just because the play turns out to be “Hamlet”? Of course not. It’s just, the brain is stuck thinking about the curtains because everything else makes us want to cry or yell or hide under a blanket.

    If you want to avoid the “fine” phrase, I suggest asking the question back, like you would do with “what’s up” or with “ça va”, and then changing the subject to something work related.

  44. CupcakeCounter*

    Give what you now know about your manager, leave the personal out of it and answer with a 100% work related response.
    How are you?
    Still working through org change 17 as it is causing some hiccups with the X process but other than that things are getting back to normal in the office.

  45. A*

    First off, OP I am so sorry for your loss.

    I wasn’t clear on the expectation surrounding the manager ‘remembering’ the death of OP’s father. The letter said that this was a new manager for OP, and the interactions described were their first two one on ones. If they didn’t work together closely prior to the transition, it’s entirely possible that the new manager wasn’t aware – or it was only mentioned in passing. Personal loss, especially the loss of a loved one, can be blinding in it’s pain. It can be easy to forget that unless you tell the people around you what has happened, they aren’t aware. I could see this having been a scenario where the previous manager mentioned it in passing while briefing the new manager – and it slipped their mind in the midst of the transition. Seems understandable to me.

  46. publictransportationrocks*

    Sometimes people just say, “oh, you know. How are you?” and no, I don’t know, but it does keep the conversation going and might be something that helps with the authenticity concern you are having.

  47. Atgo*

    If you’re in the US, you may be eligible for FMLA leave for mental health. I lost a parent earlier this year in complicated circumstances and was able to step back from my work to heal. Not sure if that’s something you’re interested in, but I was surprised to find that it was an option and want to pass it on.

  48. Dysana*

    I’m sorry for your loss, OP.

    I’ve found it definitely helps to 1) be prepared for the incoming question, and 2) have something ready to move things right along to.

    So you can say, “I’m a bit sad due to personal issues, but am coping okay.” then follow it immediately, without a pause that invites a response, with something for them to answer. e.g. “I was wondering if we could talk about the Gleeson account” or “How was the big important meeting yesterday? I’ve been interested to know what the Bumbleton’s thought of our proposal”

    It works for non-work situations too, you’ve just got to have something to move people on to right away so they don’t dwell on the thing you really don’t want to or can’t easily talk about

  49. Young coworker*

    I think also it’s useful to think about what answer YOU would give to “not doing so good.” Wouldn’t you naturally ask why? If you don’t want to answer why, your response needs to not prompt a follow up

  50. Linzava*

    Hi OP,

    I get where you’re coming from and have struggled with authenticity of, “I’m fine.” What helped me is this: 1, the exchange is a simple courtesy/tradition. I’m fine is the expected answer for non-friends/non-family. 2, Answer in relation to work, how are things going at work? If things are fine at work and terrible at home, you’re not lying.

  51. Not Fine LW*

    Hi everyone. LW here.

    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate it.

    I have thought about the social convention of the “how are you? Fine” response, and honestly wanted to solicit something other than “fine”, despite knowing that it is expected in a work environment. I had come to the realization that talking work (meeting my deliverables, thanks!) was likely a better answer than the expected “fine”. I love the “ca va” as an answer as it is non-commital, so I likely will be using that on a go-forward, if not the “meeting my deliverables, thanks!”.

    Thank you for the Jedi hugs and condolences. My Dad’s death was very sudden and quite unexpected, so it’s been especially hard. I am just grateful that I got to see him before he died.

    1. Jessica*

      I can very much relate to the visceral feeling of disloyalty when claiming to be fine after a sudden bereavement. I don’t think it can be logicked away. The suggestions for alternatives are good though. Sorry about your dad OP.

    2. Miss My Dad Too*

      OP, I’m so sorry about your father’s death and I hope the grieving process gets less rocky. When a close family member dies, it always feels as if the logistics (in your case reorganizing house, preparing for your mom’s TEMPORARY stay, etc) crowd out ones emotions, and this lengthens the time needed to process one’s loss. In my case, my dad’s death (in 2011) really hit me about the one year mark, and yes, there was cognitive dissonance when, for instance, a friend complimented me on my weight loss when I was eating less because everything tasted like sawdust.

      I do want to push back a little on the defense of your boss. Yes, cultural differences and yes he is the boss but your organization is GLOBAL. An effective manager would have learned something about North American culture and would not have been caught off balance when you responded as you did. If he had written in, I imagine Alison and the commentators would have explained North American customs to him and suggested he directly ask how work was going. It’s a mutual misunderstanding, not a mistake on your part, and when you reply ça va & move into work-related topics, you’re accommodating his cultural deficit.

      Again my deepest sympathies, and I hope that in time the memories of your dad make you feel close to him and bring you peace.

  52. This one here*

    My second-youngest sister was murdered (an attempted robbery at a motel; she was apparently heading to her car, her purse was in her room) on Mother’s Day 1991.

    I worked for the local government, as a receptionist at an agency that helped people get jobs or job training. There was a monitor, Kevin, who would turn up every couple of months, a relentlessly positive gentleman. I’d returned to work, and everyone was very kind to me, so when the monitor asked “How are you, [This one here]?” I figured he’d been apprised. I replied “I’m getting by, Kevin.”

    Kevin then said, “Oh, [This one here], you can do better than that!” Stunned, staggered, and other adjectives, I said “Kevin, apparently you didn’t know that my sister Renée was murdered on Mother’s Day.” (He’d known about the murder, not that she was my sister.) Kevin was a little less relentlessly positive towards me after that.

    1. Det. Charles Boyle*

      Wow, how awful. I’m so sorry that you had to experience the loss and then a jerk like Kevin, too.

  53. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

    I have been tempted to use Data’s response, “I am functioning within normal parameters”.
    All that means is that physically and mentally you are functioning as one would expect.

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      I do like the Data response, and it can actually be a good way to re-frame the “fine” response in your head. If “fine” stops meaning “Everything is great” and starts meaning “I am functioning within normal parameters,” then fine becomes totally true in LW’s case.

      (Also, this reminded me of my former boss, who instead of responding to questions with “I don’t know” would say “I am not programmed to respond to this query.”)

  54. RB*

    LW, I’m so sorry for your loss, and sorry that your boss is making it even harder to get through the day-to-day. My dad died six weeks ago, and my workplace has mostly been great and supportive. My challenge is that I work in a customer-facing position, and have been here forever, so I have multiple customers a day wanting to talk to me about it (give condolences, ask generally well-meaning questions, etc.). It’s all very well-intentioned, but it’s hard to function when I have to keep accessing my grief when I’m desperately trying to be in work mode.

    I’d give the same advice I’ve been taking myself: have a few planned responses that are semi-vague, and then do your best to move on with your work. I’m so sorry. This sucks so much.

  55. Vicky Austin*

    Sorry about your father.

    In the past, when I haven’t been fine and someone asks me, “How are you?” I’ve answered, “I’m hanging in there” or “I’m alive.”

  56. Thatoneoverthere*

    My guess, that there is some kind of cultural barrier here. I can’t be sure, as I have never worked in a European/French office, but its my guess that you wouldn’t discuss personal issues at work like this. I know it came across as cruel or brash. I would try not to take personal, although I am sure that is quite difficult. Perhaps if the boss continues to ask, “How are you?” just answer in relation to work.

    I am so sorry for your loss!

  57. Det. Charles Boyle*

    It might be that your manager is asking “How are you” but what he means is “How’s work going?” And in that case, the answer truly would be “Fine” if work *is* going fine, but if not, it would be a good time to discuss any work-related issues.
    In my experience, most managers and coworkers are pleasant, professional people and really, they don’t want to know about everyone’s personal life. I think that’s how it should be. Your manager doesn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but your personal life is just not on his radar and he doesn’t want the responsibility of cheering you up. You’re there to work, not get therapy (which, if you haven’t explored it, is a wonderful thing for helping with grief).
    I’m sorry for your loss.

  58. fhqwhgads*

    LW, I feel you on this, but I want to suggest taking a different angle completely. I personally have always had a hard time wrapping my head around the “I acknowledge you fellow human” interpretation of these exchanges, even though intellectually I get it. I’d also be resistant to saying I was fine given what’s just gone on in your life. But I think your boss’s reactions give you an opening for a different angle: the “how are you” is coming as part of your 1-on-1s. So it may be more productive to interpret the question in that context and in that context only. So he’s not asking how you are as a human in general or on the whole. He’s asking in this very specific work context. Therefore you can choose to answer in the very specific work context. Try to take the generic “how are you” instead as a “how are things going with your work?” or “how are you with the job currently?” That might be easier, and it’ll get the conversation going more in the direction it’s intended to for these interactions with him.

  59. Reality Check*

    I think this is a cultural difference. I’ve never worked in France but have been there a few times, had French friends, dated a couple, etc. They can be horribly blunt. It takes some getting used to. What is happening is two very different ideas of normal/polite, etc.

    1. Miss Cappuccino*

      It’s funny. I had the impression Americans were quite blunt too ( which I like). It’s the Brits who are soft spoken.

      1. londonedit*

        But Brits also wouldn’t talk about their personal lives at work unless they had particularly close relationships with their colleagues or their boss. ‘How are you?’ is a standard greeting that demands no further response than ‘Oh, fine thanks, you?’ and most British people would be taken aback if someone responded with their actual feelings – especially at work. Tone also comes into it – if I was going through a difficult time and my boss asked me ‘Hey, how are you…?’ with a concerned tone, I might respond ‘Oh, you know, it’s tough but I’m getting there’. But if it was just a normal ‘How are you?’ greeting, I’d keep it to ‘Yeah, not bad’ or ‘Hanging in there’ or something.

        I also think – and I know it might sound harsh – that I’d cut the boss a bit of slack if in fact he had forgotten about OP’s loss. Of course it’s the most important thing in OP’s life at the moment, that’s completely understandable, but the boss probably has a million things on his mind and a million people to talk to, and it’s possible that it’s just slipped his mind, especially if he’s viewing it as a work call. Or maybe on a subconscious level his brain’s thinking that he’s already expressed his sympathy, so he doesn’t need to keep asking how OP is doing every time they speak.

  60. tomatotomaahto*

    LW, so sorry for your loss and that this language barrier (and sort of inconsiderate manager) is making it more difficult for you day-to-day.

    My french is super rusty, but could ca va work? And then quickly follow with a “et tu?”

    You need the french equivalent of a polite grunt. “How are you?” “Eh. You?”

  61. Cece for the win*

    Sorry for your loss.. Often times in Europe, asking “How are you?” really means how are you and is not used as a greeting as we do here in the US. Maybe there is some cultural misconnect there with your boss.

  62. Alex*

    I wonder if a response like, “Oh, you know, it’s been tough since my dad passed, but I’m hanging in there as best I can. How are you?” would work?

    1. fposte*

      I’m going to vote no. I think it’s still misunderstanding the question as being personal, and the manager who has already indicated that this is not a conversation about her personal life.

  63. Susan*

    I’m currently dealing with this as well – all sympathies to OP.

    My dad is on hospice; I just flew back yesterday from a good but hard visit. I expect we will lose him sometime this month. I’m dealing with anticipatory grief right now, with a knowledge that actual grief will hit hard, given how close I am to my dad. My boss is trying his best to be supportive; he understands in some ways, as his mother is going through the same process now as well. But he’s a bit different from me emotionally so I’ve been trying to find the right language to say – “yes, I’m emotionally processing things right now, but I am doing my best to stay focused on work while at work”.

  64. VeryAnon*

    How about –

    “My dad just died, which you know. How do *you* think I am?”

    Maybe I’ve been reading too much Captain Awkward.

    1. Avasarala*

      That’s really aggressive. I would be afraid to ask anything after that in case I anger them.

  65. SaffyTaffy*

    “How are you?”
    “I am sad because of my father’s death, which you know about.”
    “I cannot help you with your personal life.”

    This is not the MOST typically French exchange I’ve ever read, but it’s up there.

  66. Ro*

    Is it possible to answer “how are you” with a 100% work-related reply? In other words- “really buried with project x right now” or “relieved the big product release is past us/was successful”, or my favorite- “pretty busy” and elaborate on work deliverables in your queue. Act like you assumed they were inquiring about the work you/work project status and that might help. With people you’re very close to, you can be more personal.

    So sorry about your dad.

  67. Elizabeth*

    I’ve been there and it is *so* hard. I grew to despise this question and I’ve never stopped even though I’m no longer in fresh grief.

    I recommend ignoring the literal meaning of the question entirely and giving a non-sequitur such as, “Hello, I’m ready to talk about our updates for this week!” Or “Hi, how are you?” as a reply without bothering to address the query to you at all. My experience is that these responses can complete the social ritual just as well without forcing you to perform feelings that feel like a betrayal of grief.

    Hang in there.

  68. Carlie*

    A good friend of mine answers with “Oh, how are you?” That “oh” fills the sentence spot where “fine” usually goes, and most people don’t even notice that it’s a different word.

    I love Ro and Elizabeth’s suggestions of “Ready to get going on this meeting!” or the like, too.

    Now if someone could only figure out how to stop me from accidentally asking twice the way I always do.
    Me: Hi, how are you?
    Them: Fine, and you?
    Me: Fine thanks. And how are you? (inside: dammit I did it again)

  69. Ines*

    I am both a French and English speaker and I would never presume that a French speaker’s initial “how are you” means anything other than a rote greeting – especially coming from a boss. Generally, you *know* when they actually mean ‘tell me something about your personal life.’ (Grief can really do a number on our logic reasoning skills though.)

    Similarly, when I lived in West Africa, there was a set of rote greetings in the local language (sometimes repeated in French which added another layer of confusion), “how is the work? How is the husband? How are the kids” and the correct answer was “fine” and it was not cool to respond “oh I’m not married” or “I don’t have kids”, it super confused the question-asker, and the point was the greeting, not the reality of the responder’s marital or work life.

    I like everyone’s suggestion to reframe it as “how is the work” in order to help you through this extremely difficult time! I know from experience that it’s so terrible when you feel like screaming “but I’m not fine”.

  70. vanillacookies*

    When my supervisor asks how I’m doing, she usually expects to hear how my work is going. This may be your manager’s intent as well and I suggest interpreting his question that way. Are you feeling good? No. Is your work going okay? I’m assuming yes.

  71. Sleepless*

    I’m so sorry for your loss. My dad died very suddenly 12 years ago and I’m still not completely “fine.”

    However…“How are you?” “Fine, thanks.” It’s a standard greeting, the end.

    On the other hand, I’ve had to remind a family member that when they are in the hospital and the nurse says “how are you?” it is not a social nicety. Give them the rundown on how you are!

  72. Jedi Squirrel*

    OP, I am sorry for your loss. I am glad that you are getting counseling and I hope it helps. You’ve gotten some great advice here and I think “ça va” works perfectly well for this situation.

    Commentariat, I also understand where the boss is coming from. I am not good at dealing with others’ losses, even when it’s a friend or coworker that I am close with. And the French are very protective of their personal lives, to the point where you can work next to someone for years and not know anything about their personal life. They build a pretty strong wall between their personal and professional lives.

    The commentariat has a pretty strong inclination to pile on, but I had to reread this:

    I made some comment about changes in my personal life as well as the recent organizational changes. His response was, “I cannot help you with your personal life.”

    and I have to wonder why people think he’s such a jerk. There’s a language barrier, a distance and time barrier, and the lack of visual communication does not help. All that was referenced here was “changes in my personal life”. Sounds to me like he is trying to say “I cannot help you with the personal changes, but I can help you with the organizational changes.”

    Then again, I realize that I am inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt most of the time.

    1. Sleepless*

      I read the boss’ comment as more of a “whoa, awkward, don’t know what to say to that” response.

    2. doreen*

      First, OP , I am sorry for your loss.

      Jedi Squirrel, I agree, for all the reasons you gave- and about the boss not remembering the OP’s loss? Maybe I’m a jerk, but it generally takes about six weeks to reliably remember the names when I end up managing a new group of people and longer when I don’t see them everyday. I wouldn’t think to write myself notes because I really wouldn’t expect it to come up again. Because in my experience, it never has, not in a way that I was expected to remember someone else’s loss.

  73. Thrown into the fire new manager*

    How are you? I am surviving thank you. How are you? That is my go to answer while my life is in total chaos and I cry more often than I would like. Because I am surviving through it all. Maybe that will help you?

    1. Snark*

      I don’t think that’s appropriate in context, which is the boss asking how things are going with work.

      1. Thrown into the fire new manager*

        I don’t agree

        Manager: “Hi! How are you?”
        Me: “I’m a bit sad.”
        Manager: “Oh? Why?”
        Me: *stunned* “Um, my father’s recent death?!?”
        Manager: “Oh, right….”

  74. Former Trumpet Player*

    My dad died unexpectedly this summer, too, OP. I’m actually an orphan now, at 36 – my mom died when I was 22. It’s really, really hard, and I send you all the comforting energy I have. I’m also not doing particularly well in that I feel exhausted to the bone, constantly, am irritable and sad a lot. But I show up to work on time and still do my job well, I haven’t been abusing any substances, and am doing the things I need to do to finalize my father’s estate and sell my childhood home in another state (which he lived in for 35 years). At work, quite honestly I mostly welcome the break from thinking about the loss. I do make a point to teach my friends rather than my coworkers that if they ask how I am, they’re not going to get a bullshit response. They’ll hear the truth, but I’m careful with my language to differentiate when I am simply answering a question, when I am open to talking more, or if I want something from them, I will specifically ask – I don’t explain just to guilt trip. I don’t have the energy to do this at work, though, so I keep it casual with most people and say “not too bad” or “hanging in there” most of the time, without elaboration. With my boss I do think it’s important to explain that I’m still coping/struggling so he knows why I may be a few minutes late every once in awhile, or need to leave work early occasionally for a therapy appt, meeting with accountant, etc. I leave it to him to ask if he wants more detail.

    1. Snark*

      But it’s still replying to a question about one’s work with an answer about one’s headspace, and that makes it not a good fit here.

      OP is mistaking this for the boss asking how they are doing. He is asking about their work, and if they have anything they need to discuss about projects and deadlines and so on.

  75. Daphne Moon*

    OP, I have been right where you are. Lost my dad last year. After a while when the office had “moved on” and I’d been back a while (but still grieving) I started giving an answer more related to work. Some go-to replies were “Busy with Project XYZ” or “Ready for the weekend.”
    I am so sorry for your loss.

  76. Smuckers*

    My go-to when I don’t want to lie and say everything is all hunky dory, but don’t want to get into it is “enh, you know [change subject].” So, something like “enh, you know, how was your weekend?” or “enh, you know, did the updated files come through yet?”

    If you move on to something else, it usually preempts the need for followup questions. And I’ve found that “enh” is a great way to say “not great” without actually saying “not great.”

    Someone for whom English isn’t their first language might not get that last little bit, but in this case I’d consider that a feature.

    I’m very sorry for your loss. :(

  77. Mel*

    I usually sidestep the question.
    “How are you doing?”
    “Oh hey! What’s up?”
    surprisingly effective in most cases

  78. Shoes On My Cat*

    Op, I am so very sorry about your dad, the situation with your mom and all the changes at work. Plus an odd boss. Considering said boss’ comment, one other option to answer the “how are you” might be to answer it in a work context. Ie “I am excited about the x project but a little anxious about the y situation.” Basically see what happens if you interpret his”How are you?” as an inquiry about what your primary work concerns are, give you the opportunity to direct the intial few minutes of the one-on-one. Who knows, if his English is not super fluent, that may be what he actually means?

  79. Getting By*

    I usually just deflect and redirect in situations like this but don’t actually answer the question, as in “Thanks for asking, how are you?” In my case it’s depression and extreme life stressors, not grief, but I’m familiar with the discomfort you describe. I actually find it helpful to try to feel gratitude for at least the gesture of asking, no matter how little genuine interest may have been attached, because in the end it’s little social niceties that keep a community connected by their common humanity. I hope time brings you peace and you find the strength to continue managing your well-being each day in the meantime.

  80. Wintermute*

    It may have serious issues in places, the “life-position” stuff is bunk, and its treatment of addiction is, to put it best, ill-informed by medical science, but Transaction Theory, the old 70’s “I’m OK, You’re OK” stuff, was spot on about this sort of thing.

    “How are you” is not an honest inquiry, it’s a “game”: a rote pattern of interaction people engage in. These games form a lot of our routine social interactions and are the fundamental basis for everyday conversation. “the greeting game” is one of the most elemental games there is

    The way you play a “game” is by issuing a stock ‘opener’, the other party is expected to issue a “stroke” of their own. “how are you” is as simple as it gets, opener, stroke, return stroke, that’s it. “how are you”, “I’m fine how are you?”, “good, thanks”.

    If you’re invited to play a game and you don’t, it comes off as extremely rude. Returning more strokes than expected, or fewer, is going to come off as rude.

    In other words, it’s a social construct you’re expected to take part in, not something to take personally, there really is no way to get around that without coming off as if you don’t understand a fundamental part of how adults talk to one another.

  81. Carmen*

    I am 300+ comments late to the game but, am hoping Alison and others might read this: it would be so amazing if people would stop saying “Hanging in there”, or, to the bereaved, a “Hang in there” accompanied by Sympathetic Head Tilt. My brother-in-law died from suicide. The method by which he chose to die? Yes, you guessed it! It’s been more than 10 years since he chose to die, but all I think about are nooses and gallows whenever this phrase is deployed.

    For the letter writer, I’m so sorry about your dad. I’m also sorry your boss is an ass. Mine was too when my dad died three years ago; it was bewildering to encounter how cold and clueless people can be. Counselling has helped, as well as lowering expectations I used to have around how people react to death. The suicide also helped with that. The crap that comes out of people’s mouths is astounding.

  82. Not Fine LW*

    Some additional information–
    My Dad died August 30th. I contacted my boss on September 2nd to inform him. He told me our bereavement policy, got it wrong, but later corrected the issue. At no time was there a mention of using our EAP programme, or any websites, or anything to assist me.

    I would love to use some of the phrases, “getting by” or “here” but I can see them inviting more “why”. So I will stick to work and speak about work topics instead.

    Thank you all for the hugs and condolences – I wish I could address each of you individually, but please know that I appreciate each.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Ugh. That is some crappy crap to deal with on top of your dad’s death. I am so very sorry. If you think it would be useful, perhaps you could reach out to HR with your experience and simply state that you are concerned that in the merger there are important details that are not being covered well and that perhaps more emphasis is needed on making sure that managers have access to the correct information and what managers should be covering in discussions with employees when they have major personal issues. As a back-end work around to alerting HR that this manager seems to have some issues as a manager. Also, for documentation purposes given that you don’t have a great relationship with him at this point and don’t know how it will develop going forward.

    2. Dr Rat*

      Hi, I tried to post earlier but my reply got tossed, apparently due to me trying to link to an article on businessculture.org, so I won’t link this time, but there is an excellent article on there about French communication in business. This is verbatim from the article: “The French have an inherent sense of privacy and there is a definite distinction between business and personal life. Respecting this privacy is particularly important when working in France.” Please, go to that website and look up business culture in France. There is a ton of useful info.

      So, others have mentioned something similar, but I speak some French and am familiar with the cultural differences, and I think this is what is going on: He is asking “How are you?” What he means is, “How are things going business wise? And please keep your personal life to yourself like a normal person.” He does not want to hear about your personal life, at all. Not because he is being rude, but because that is how his business culture operates. When you talk about your grief, he is thinking that this is weird and inappropriate to discuss at work, even though it’s totally normal in your culture. Think of it this way: he’s reacting like you would if you asked him, “How are you doing?” and he said, “Terrible. I’ve been having a lot of erectile dysfunction lately and I think my wife is going to cheat on me if I can’t get it up soon.” You would be thinking, “Whoa, dude! TMI!”

      For a great and funny short story on the subject, read O Henry’s The Champion of the Weather, about a cowboy in New York reacting when someone says, “Nice day!” So sorry about the loss of your father and best of luck bridging the cultural differences with your new boss.

        1. DrRat*

          Thanks! So now it just looks like I repeat myself. Oh, well, I just hope some of the info helps the OP.

  83. animaniactoo*

    Given the language barrier, I would also assume a culture/personality difference and simply explain “I understand. I was not asking for help in this area, simply expressing my current general state. I am ready to talk about work now, would you like me to start with a status update or is there something else you would like to talk about?”

    Since that moment has passed, I would reach out to say “Hi – I think that we have some miscommunication and would like to clarify. When I explained that my “so-so” state was due to my father’s death, I was not asking for help, simply explaining why I was not “fine” or “great” when you asked why I was “so-so” as part of our greetings. I was and am ready to discuss work in our 1-to-1 conversations and would just like to be clear that if I say I’m “so-so” for awhile, it’s only because it feels off to say “I’m fine” when I am handling the work and feel I am doing as well as can be expected but am just not truly “fine” yet. If you would be so kind as to continue on to work-related matters at that point, I would really appreciate it.”

  84. Norm*

    If someone at work asks me “How are you?” and the truthful answer is “Miserable” I never go with that. I say “OK, how are you?” This feels authentic to me because maybe I’m feeling very sad about the death of a loved one, but that’s OK; I’m supposed to feel sad and I’m OK having that feeling without making it an issue at my job.

  85. CAndy*

    Any remote manager I’ve ever worked with who has had limited information about me as a person has always taken small bits of information/comments in phone calls and given them far more weight than a manager in the same building would have. Frustrating.
    That’s not the case with this guy, he’s quite simply an insensitive disinterested arse.
    As for what to do, if it were me I’d have a conversation with him specifically about your father and what you’re going through. So that it isn’t just some thing about, “Hey how are you?” at the start of a phone conversation but something that could maybe get it across to him that you’re a human who has recently lost a dear parent.

  86. Laura*

    So sorry to read about your dad’s death, OP!

    Sounds like there may be a language barrier, although your boss’s response to a question he asked was rude. As someone who has various mental and physical health issues, I wonder if your boss felt like he had to solve your grief. In my experience, I have found people either ignore me or respond rudely when I share my hardships because they don’t know what to say or think that they have to take care of me/solve my problems when all I want is a listening ear. I’m not sure what your relationship was like with your boss before your dad’s death, but maybe you can share that you found his response uncomfortable and clarify your needs. Of course, you know your boss better than this internet stranger, so sharing your feelings may not feel right – and that’s okay.

  87. gracak*

    I’ve dealt with this a lot. Your answer to “how are you” should relate to how you want the conversation to go.

    Do you want to talk to your boss about your personal life right then? Probably not, then the correct and honest answer is “right now, in this work call, I’m eager to talk about work” and fine is the appropriate answer. Saying something that means “not fine” in that context may mean a work problem. So if he asks you “how are you?” you could say “Actually, things aren’t going well, I couldn’t get my coworker on this call like they were supposed to be.”

    Is it someone you don’t like or distrust? Then you control where the conversation goes with your answer. “Fine” may seem unauthentic, but it signals “I don’t want to have a personal and vulnerable conversation with you right now.”

    “How are you” can mean “Are you present with me in this moment” and your answer of “Fine” can mean “I’ve fine to have this phone call right now.”

    But if you’re having lunch with a friend and struggling, you can say “I’m not doing very well” because that can mean “Right now at this lunch I’m not going to be available to be lighthearted. There’s something weighing on me.” And there is room in that social interaction to get into details of how you really are.

    It just so happens that the standard American greeting is a question that invites a different kind answer than intended. In Ireland, they say “Are you alright?” which sounds like a question of concern to others. But it’s just a greeting, the answer can be “hiya.”

    In Spanish people sometimes greet themselves by saying “que tienes” or “que traes” which means literally “What do you bring?” or “What do you have?” The correct response isn’t “nada” or nothing, it’s “Hi, how are you.”

    But what I’m hearing is that you’re really not okay and not ready to pretend that you are. Maybe you feel rushed to finish your grieving so people can get back to normal. But if you’re still able to work, at work saying “fine” means “able to do work right now” not “unaffected by grief and over my dad dying.”

  88. FairPayFullBenefits*

    I’m sorry you’re going through this OP!

    From the dialogue listed, I didn’t read it as the boss forgot he died. If you ask someone how they are and they say they’re sad or even “so-so,” it would be rude not to ask about it. That said, since his death happened in August, it’s probably not at the front of your boss’s mind every time you meet – but I think that’s normal. When he said “I cannot help you with your personal life,” my guess is that it’s coming from a place of him feeling maybe frustrated or awkward that he’s in a place of having to console you or talk about your personal life every time you meet. Even though it’s a different power dynamic, imagine the roles were reversed. If you greeted your boss by asking “How are you?” and he responded every time you saw him that he was sad, it would put you in an uncomfortable position.

    I agree the how-are-you/fine-and-you ritual is inauthentic, and I like Alison’s framing that it’s a way of saying “I acknowledge you, fellow human.” When my boss asks me how I am, I might think of it more as them asking “How are you – at work?” or “How are you – at this moment?” Unless there’s something wrong at work or I had some disaster just that morning, I would say fine. Maybe if you don’t interpret him as asking “How are you generally doing in your personal life?” (which he’s not), it won’t feel inauthentic to just say you’re fine. Or think of it as saying “Fine” isn’t really an answer to his question but just a way to move the conversation along, while “I’m sad” is asking him to follow up.

  89. Penny H.*

    Well, I certainly don’t know French, however I definitely can empathize to how you feel! I cannot fathom responding with “Fine” and although it might be a pleasantry, I always can’t help but find the question rude if someone knows what happened. My answer is always “Taking it one day at a time!” and deflecting by asking how the other person is doing (primarily so I don’t have to answer more questions.) I’ve rationalized that the explanation for people’s behavior is that they are uncomfortable and care enough to ask, but don’t know what to say exactly. I’m really sorry :(

  90. The Other Katie*

    If you truly don’t want to answer the question, something that works surprisingly well is to sling the question back at them.

    “Hey, how are you?”
    “How are you doing?”

    Many people are so accustomed to ritual responses to “how are you?” they may not even notice that you didn’t actually provide them an answer.

  91. Luna*

    “and I cannot in good conscience answer “fine” despite this being the answer my boss is expecting.”
    That is a really good example on why I don’t like the question of how a person is, if the answer is supposed to be a certain one. I don’t care if you consider it polite or necessary small talk to ease into things. If you are not okay with hearing an honest answer, just don’t ask the question.

    I would suggest to give them blunt, honest, but not too in-your-face answers, if even asking the manager to please not ask again (“My father’s death is still a very recent thing, and I am not okay with being repeatedly asked how I am, when I am still very much raw with grief.”) will end with that request not being taken into account.
    Things like “I’m dealing”. It’s blunt, but honest. It tells them that you are not okay, but it also shows that you are at least somewhat managing to keep yourself together enough to do your job. (If that was not the case, I would hope your manager would see that some more bereavement time off might help)

  92. Been There*

    Oh, man…I’m sorry, OP. My own father died in 2017, 6 months after the death of my father-in-law, and after a vicious, cruel, 5-year battle with dementia that by the end completely obliterated any semblance of the man I knew. Even knowing that it was coming, and truly relieved that he wouldn’t suffer any more, I found myself devastated and completely unprepared for the loss (2 years later, my eyes are welling up just writing this because I still miss him so much and because dementia is pure, pure evil). At the time I worked in a very small department of fewer than 10 people and everyone, including our narcissistic, incompetent department head, knew the situation and that I had been helping care for both my parents over the past several years. Not an HOUR into my first morning back after bereavement leave, (you know, after you’ve strung yourself together with duct tape and chicken wire while memories come at you like splinters from a woodchipper) I’m just trying to get through some emails, the troglodyte ambles by my office, pokes his head in, and asks, “Hey, by the way, how’s your dad doing these days?” sending me racing to the nearesr empty meeting room to bawl and hyperventilate for 30 minutes before I could pull myself together again. Turns out he had “forgotten” about the memo–you know, the one that went out to like 5 other people. (And no, he never apologized.)
    That guy was an idiot in SO many ways. So glad I don’t work for him any more.

  93. Willow*

    I have been reading your blog for years and have never made a comment myself. However, I am reading the comments regarding how cold and insensitive the boss is saying “I cannot help you with your personal life”. On the face of it, that looks cold and uncaring but as OP stated, her boss’ English is not perfect, neither is her French. I live in the UK but was born in a different country and I am mostly being mistaken for being English. As it happens I also speak fluent French and German (neither are my mother tongue). In may job I deal with lots or European customers who have varying degrees of fluency in English, the result of which is that sometimes they say/write things that may seem rude, insensitive, pushy, angry….. well you get the picture. I suspect all these commenters here (most of which, I bet, do not speak a foreign language so have no concept of this) may have not appreciated that the boss’ response may be “lost in translation”. As the OP states, his English is not perfect and his vocabulary may not be wide, so his comment of “I cannot help you with your personal life” may – actually – be along the lines of “I am sorry you are dealing with this but unfortunately I am not able to help you with this struggle in your private life”. It comes out as curt and cold because, as likely as not, he does not have the language skills/vocabulary to express himself adequately. So….. maybe he is not cold, and insensitive….. maybe he is just not skilled enough at English and like me, probably is also lost as to what to say that may help. Does he forget you lost your dad? Maybe. Maybe – as he is remote – he is not being confronted by it every day and so does not really appreciate the impact.
    But, I am truly sorry you are dealing with this, I know from painful experience how hard that is.

  94. Scarlet*

    “How are you?”, especially in a professional sense is a greeting, not an inquiry. Can’t you go with the tried and true “good how are you?” “not bad, and you?” or the line you like “hanging in there, you?”.

    If you decide to go with “I’m a bit sad”, or something similar, yes, people are going to ask why- because “good how are you?” is pretty much the common response. I’m sorry I’m not sure I understand the confusion here.

  95. Kat*

    LW I’m so sorry for your loss.

    Until I lost my nana whom I was very close to, I never really thought about this issue. But I completely know what you’re going through feeling like the whole “how are you” daily routine adds so much anxiety to your day during a time you’re already struggling emotionally. When she passed I realized how much I HATE this question and how there really aren’t any good responses when you’re grieving.

    I don’t know if anyone suggested it yet but if you think your manager would be receptive you could say to them that given your recent loss you would like to keep your 1:1s strictly about work and could he agree to skip past the whole “how are you?” part of the conversation until further notice or when you initiate it again.
    That might signal to him that so far he’s done a really lousy job of remembering and considering your loss and that you’re not asking him to be an emotional support for you, that you do want to focus on work, and this small measure will help you.

    If he balks at that or still forgets then unfortunately I think you have to accept he’s kind of a garbage human being who doesn’t have a lot of empathy for people and find a way to accept Alison’s advice that this is one of those meaningless social etiquette things that means more to you right now than it does to him. And try to find ways to move past it quickly like saying “ready to work” or perhaps just ignoring the question and quickly delving into talking about work and see if that helps.

    Again, I’m so sorry for you loss and know that you are not alone in how you are feeling about this.

  96. always in email jail*

    I 100% back the advice to internalize the question as “How are you (in a work context)?”. Then, you don’t have to feel dishonest with your answer. It is possible to say “Pleased about the new data management system- it’s going to make running reports so much easier! How are you?” “Oh, you know, busy preparing for the big conference the US office is hosting next week! How are you?” and not be lying. You can be pleased about a new data management system and grieving for your father.

  97. Amy*

    My grandpa used to reply to “how are you” with a jovial and dramatic, “Ohhhhhh, if I told you my troubles…I’d have you weeping! *big smile*” which never failed to flummox the polite cashier or acquaintance. He made it work by continuing the conversation I guess.

    I also remember those first several months after my dad died not knowing how to make it through the mundane rituals of society. I got very hung up on saying “passed away” like it was peaceful, when it very much was not. I got hung up on “I’m fine” and “parents’ house” and “party of x-1” instead of “party of x”, and how many of our common English phrases have to do with death, killing, violence.

    Take whatever suggestions in this thread are helpful, but in this and so many ways you just have to muddle through the horrible awkwardness for awhile because the world outside doesn’t match the agony in your internal world. You aren’t betraying your dad and your grief if you take the path of least resistance sometimes, but other times you just have to let other people feel awkward if you need to say something unexpectedly honest.

  98. casinoLF*

    How about just saying “Ça va”? That literally just means “it goes.” And it is, well, going.

  99. Betsy S*

    I often answer something like “keeping busy” or “oh, lots going on, yourself?” . It’s always true, and it leads naturally into work conversations (or the occasional “TGIF”). Has to be in a light tone, not complaining. For my boss, I might answer with “busy, got a lot done this week on X and Y projects” or some such thing. Again, leading right into work. (although my current immediate boss does make a point of asking how life is outside of work. Your boss sounds very, hm, buttoned-up)

  100. Wren*

    I’m sorry about your dad.

    Perhaps you can tack on context to your answer, like, “getting on, with respect to work,” assuming that’s true (followed by reflecting the “how are you” back to him to complete the loop.)

    I’m so sorry your boss was insensitive to the point of saying “I can’t help you with your personal life.” yikes.

  101. Luke*

    OP, my condolences for the loss of your father.

    I will confess being irked at “how are you”, especially on the fourth or fifth call that day from the same person.
    “Hello again, Mr Luke. How are you?”
    “Unchanged from the last 3 times you asked today, Sergeant Fergus. What can I do for you? “

  102. Luke*

    My usual go-to is “Knee-deep in alligators (I AM in Florida). What can I do for you? (that IS why you’re calling)”.

    What can I say, I’m an introvert and idle chit-chat either on the phone or in person is soul-sucking to me, so let’s get down to business.

  103. Fiddlesticks*

    I think it’s more likely that something got lost in translation, rather than the French-speaking boss is just a jerk.

    I have a feeling that he’s asking “How are you (doing at work)?” and is surprised when she answers “Sad.” Perhaps, in his cultural reference, it is inappropriate to bring up personal feelings with your supervisor on a work-related call? Which is why, the second time she responded this way when being asked “How are you?” he responded with “I cannot help you with your personal life.” He probably thought that she kept mentioning her sadness because she wanted his assistance in some way. Whereas he’s seeing this call as purely business, and he expects her to function on the call in a purely business way also. Therefore the answer to “How are you?” would be “I’m doing well on the Nielsen account, but I had a question for you about how we should handle Granger’s latest request for…” An American boss might be more understanding about an employee’s desire to share the truth about “how she’s doing”, but I don’t think he really means to be cruel or dismissive.

  104. guess*

    It sounds like OP is interpreting “How are you” as “How are you feeling?” which is reasonable. But often in my 1-1 when my boss asks that I interpret it as “How is your work going?” so my answer is more like “My projects are going well, but there were some unexpected issues with ….”

    Essentially, instead of answering How I Am as a Person, I answer how I’m doing as an employee.

  105. So sleepy*

    A few answers I’ve been known to use in english to answer how are you/how’s it going when I don’t feel like answering or things just suck generally:

    “Oh, you know.”
    “Still kicking.”
    “Oh, surviving.”
    “Getting by.”
    “Been better.” (may open you to follow-up questions, though)
    “I’m alright” (I consider being alive and able to get out of bed to be the bar for alright)
    “Getting there.”
    “Ask me in a month. ”
    “Wishing there were more hours in the day.”
    “Ready for the weekend.”
    “Missing my dad, but pushing through it best I can. You?” (I don’t use this one, but it would work well in your situation, I think).
    “Wishing it was [season/month/year in the future]” (I use this one a lot jokingly because we have a long-term project and I typically throw in the projected end date… but you could equally say spring, summer, fall)

    And also, because I work in a French environment:
    -You can usually just say “ça va” or “oui, ça va” depending on how it’s phrased.
    -Ça pourrait aller mieux (could be better)
    -Comme un lundi
    -ça fait aller
    -il ira mieux le week-end
    -Comme ci, comme ça (so-so… this is fairly neutral)
    -Comme d’habitude (as usual – generally vague but won’t invite follow-up)
    -ça va moyen

  106. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I sympathize with how difficult it is to go back to work when grieving; I lost my partner late last year and returned to work a week after.

    My circumstances were slightly different — my colleagues knew my partner and so when they’d ask how I was doing, it was clear they were asking how I was doing *in my grief*. But a little while later–in fact, a surprisingly short amount of time (to me) later–those general “how are you” questions were clearly about small-talk / intros to the topic the person wanted to discuss rather than an actual inquiry into my grief-state.

    I leaned heavily on similar suggestions to what others above had made: re-frame the ask as being about work and answer accordingly (if work is fine, answer “fine”; if something rough is going on work-wise, answer as such). And if your experience is anything like mine, you may not always know if your rough day is because of work or because of grief, and when that happens you could always answer whatever the colloquial equivalent of “I’m hanging in there” is.

    Again, I’m so sorry for your loss.

  107. Curmudgeon in California*

    Try this:

    Manager: “Hi! How are you?”
    Me: “Work is ok.”

    That puts the discussion firmly into work territory, doesn’t try to plumb the depths of your feelings, and lets you keep all of the stuff around your father’s death to yourself.

    I’m sorry to hear about your father. I know how a death in the family has fallout and changes beyond just funerals that can go on for months. I’m glad your company has an EAP to help with that.

  108. SimplyTheBest*

    I haven’t read all the responses, so I apologize if I’m repeating, but I wonder if it might make things easier to reframe his question a bit in your head. Based on his “I can’t help with personal things” I think it might be easier for you if you see his question as strictly work based. Use that silly fortune cookie game, but replace “in bed” with “at work.” When he’s asking “how are you?” he’s not asking how are you in a general sense, he’s asking “how are you (at work)?” Then maybe you won’t feel compelled to answer with “I’m feeling sad” which, like Alison said, is inviting awkward follow ups.

    So sorry about your dad.

  109. Xarastin*

    First, I must say that I am so deeply sorry for your loss. I truly feel for you and I hope that, in your own time, things will get better. Second, I am French, working in an international environment and I experienced a bit about cultural discrepancies that can create tensions and resentment. Third, that I would prefer to send a comment to your manager, not to you, because right now, I think that your manager should be more understanding, but he didn’t write to Alison Green. Finally, that, even if I try to explain a bit about French work culture, I am not excusing it. I think that our culture is lacking humanity.

    The issue is that he most probably felt your answer as inappropriate and unprofessional. There is two reasons for that. One is that it is idiomatic and automatic to ask someone if they are fine (the infamous « ça va ? »), but answering anything else that “yes and you?” is felt as an awkward response to a rhetorical question. The second is that, if you do not know a coworker well enough, if they are not in front of you and if they are not *really* asking personal question, giving deeply personal information is felt as unprofessional.

    « Bonjour. Ça va ? » is an idiomatic expression that just means “hello”. Its idiomatic answer is « Ça va, et toi ? ». It doesn’t mean that you are alright. It doesn’t mean that you are fine. It’s an automatic answer to an automatic question. If he were asking « Comment vas-tu ? », he would really be asking how you’re doing, but in this context, he is only greeting you. If the meetings are held in English, you can also be pretty certain that, by asking “How are you?”, he is only translating from French to English, so he is only expecting an automatic “Yes and you?”.
    Answering anything else than « ça va et toi ? » or « oui et toi ? » sounds very strange and like a call for help, which is very frown upon on French culture, especially from people you don’t know well. His insensitive response is, I believe, a reaction to an answer that is very unsual.
    Fun fact: there is a story that say that, « ça va ? » meant “how are you passing stools?” in the XVIIe century. It could be helpful to remember that it is not a question about how you’re feeling and you have no obligation answering that.

    The « comme ci-comme ça » is not a good answer, because it’s both a very old-fashioned expression that I never heard a French person say, and a very awkward answer to the « Ça va ? » question. You do not feel well, you can mutter something that sounds a bit like « oui » and then ask clearer « et toi ? ». Or, if you want to convey the fact that you are not that well, you can answer « On fait aller, et toi ? » (“we make it going, and you?”) ou « Ma foi… et toi ? » (“Well… and you?”). It still a bit more personal than your manager may like, but it should feel less disturbing.

    Oh, and when you feel better, if you are still working with this guy, you may like to prepare a snarky comment, to remind him that he handled your grief poorly. Sadly enough, sarcasm is more appropriate that not answering “yes” to “How are you?” in French workplace.

  110. Popsicle*

    I’m a bit late to the party here, and haven’t had a chance to read all the other comments, so maybe this has been covered.
    Try answering with how work is, not how life is.
    I had a similar kind of situation with a boss that didn’t want to hear anything personal even though they asked questions about it.
    When they asked me how I was, and I had a LOT going on personally, I answered with “work is going good, X work related thing has posed a challenged but Z work related thing went like a dream”.
    If I could tell that *life* was having an impact on my work more than usual, I’d throw in a “personal stuff is making me a bit distracted, but I’m working through that.”
    I’m sorry to hear about your Dad, it’s nice to hear you and your mum have each other for support though.

    1. Popsicle*

      I should have put in here, it helped with me because I wasn’t lying about being ok, or pretending.
      And it avoided the unwelcome awkwardness with said boss that seemed to happen even time they were reminded that staff working here were people with lives outside of work. Ugh.

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