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Have you ever played the game Hey Robot? It’s the one where you try to get Alexa (or other AI assistants, like Siri or Google Home) to say a word by asking a question in such a way to elicit the response you’re after. Here’s a clip of Jimmy Fallon playing it in pre-Covid times. If you watch the first minute, you’ll quickly see how it works. Let’s try it out!

Pull out your phone or any AI Assistant, and your goal is to get the robot to say the word “fine”. Think deeply and come up with a question that will deliver the goods!

How did it go?
Were you successful?
What question did you ask?

I’m not a gambler, but if I was, I’d wager that you just asked your device, “How are you?” More often than not, that question is paired with the response, “Fine thanks, you?” That default question works beautifully in our Hey Robot game, but increasingly, it is no longer working in our current day-to-day interactions.

Before Covid, it was understood that the person asking the question wasn’t really inquiring after your well being, but rather, they were saying something benignly polite to start a conversation, and therefore it was perfectly acceptable to respond by rote, politely. In the western world, “How are you? I’m Fine” has become the norm.

But, if you think about it, this habitual question has never been an effective conversation starter. Overuse has robbed it of its actual meaning. When we’re on the receiving end of this question, knee-jerking out the response “fine” often doesn’t sit well because many of us are not fine at the moment. We’re living in unprecedented uncertainty on a global scale, and responding “fine” can feel inauthentic and disingenuous.

When we’re interested in building meaningful connections and understanding how someone is really doing, we’d be better off shifting from this default approach to a more authentic and genuine one. Imagine how different our conversations would flow, if we shifted from the default “How are you?” to something like, “Hey, it’s great to see you here on Zoom. Tell me, how are you taking care of yourself and your family now?” Not only would we receive a more meaningful response, but we would also more clearly convey our genuine interest in the person we’re speaking with.

Double Bonus.
Habits can be broken, with intentionality, practice and a few alternatives at the ready. If you’re interested in forging stronger connections and enabling more meaningful conversations with those around you, here are five alternatives to “How are you?”

-Tell me, how is the Covid crisis affecting you?
-What are you most excited to do once we’re out of quarantine?
-What surprised you most about this time?
-What’s different for you this week?
-How are you coping?

Consider these five questions a starting point. I challenge you to add another five questions to this list that you believe will help you open better conversations. Try it this week and please let me know what impact this one small change has had on your conversations.

About the Author: JoAnn Lauterbach is a Communication Specialist based in Toronto, Canada who helps professionals communicate more clearly. She’s a proud Jamaican who’s convinced that when more people communicate with courage and confidence, more people will thrive. Find out how she works and read her blog at