DEAR MISS MANNERS: The conventional response to “How are you?” is “Fine, thank you.” What do you recommend for a response when things are not at all fine?
“Fine, thanks, and I’m calling to tell you that our granddaughter’s funeral will be on Friday” or “I’m fine, thank you. I’m on my way out the door, because my doctor just called and said to come in immediately and to be prepared for very bad news” just don’t work.
Surely there is a standard form for saying that you are not doing well without encouraging prying on their part or whining on mine.
GENTLE READER: “Could be worse”? But perhaps things hardly could be.
As you point out, “How are you?” is a convention, only one step up from the traditional greeting of “How do you do?” (to which the answer is “How do you do?”). Anyone who is anxious about your health will peer into your eyes and say, “Tell me, how are you really?”
So the trick is that if you skip answering, no one will notice. In both examples you give, you could have gone right to the follow-up statement. Miss Manners believes you could also get away with nothing more than a hearty, “And how are you?”