“How’s it going?”

Next to “Does this dress make me look fat?” perhaps the most dangerous question in the English language.

But I can’t seem to help myself. A simple “Hello” never seems to want to come out of my mouth — even though I know when I utter those three words I’m opening myself to all sorts of abuse, to a self-flatulating tirade that would have the Marquis de Sade shuddering.

Any reply short of “Great!” or “Things are going fine, just fine.” is a signal of danger. Beware of, “Huh, okay I guess,” or a shrug followed by, “It’s going.” These aren’t actually an answer to your question so much as an invitation to inquire further: “Oh, is everything okay?” is the expected response. You do so at your own peril.

Case in point: I recently met an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. Nice guy. He looked good, better than I remembered him. As he pumped my hand, I casually asked, “How’s it going?” and to my horror, he actually told me.

I expected, “Good, really good,” followed by brief account of how the kids were doing in school. Perhaps something like, “The oldest will graduate next year. She wants to be a musician, but we’ve talked her into majoring in business and minoring in music. Got to have a fallback, you know.” Or, “Little Bubba just joined cub scouts and he is away this weekend on his first camping trip. First time away from home.”

This is the sort of innocuous response that you are supposed to get from “How’s it going?” Nothing Earth shattering. Worst case scenario, you get to hear a blow by blow description of someone’s colonoscopy.

To my chagrin, I found out this was the wrong question asked to the wrong person at the wrong time. For 30 excruciating minutes I heard every detail of a long list of mid-life crises that would have had that biblical example of patience, Job, looking for a convenient hole to crawl into, sackcloth, ashes, and all.

He started with: “My wife left me.” He could have stopped there. I know I was ready for him to stop there.

“I’m going to have to raise the boys by myself.”

I didn’t ask how many boys. But he seemed to know where the conversation should go next.

“Eight,”

I clung to his hand in confusion—eight boys? Until he added, “eleven, and thirteen.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding.

“She cleaned out our account.”

At this point I was trying to extract my hand from his.

“She met an old friend from high school at a reunion last week. And last night she packed and left with him. I don’t know how I’m going to raise the three boys. I’ve been going to night school. Wanted a better job. For the family. I think I’m going to have to drop out.”

At that point he grew quiet and let go of my hand. I was sure he had come to the end of his list of woes.

“Our anniversary is next week,” he added.

I uttered a wane, “That’s nice,” in reply.

“You?” he asked in return, as thought I had not just become his surrogate psychologist’s couch.

An exchange student from China told me one day, “I finally figured it out. When someone asks you ‘How’s it going?’ they really don’t want to know.” It may be that the real answer to that question is too intimate. We’re curious about the travails of Bradjolie. But those people we meet day to day? We’re really not sure if we want to see too deeply into their lives, perhaps because we might have to actually do something.

I wish I’d asked my friend that day a second question: “How are you feeling?” I didn’t. That would have brought an avalanche of words. It would have been a small thing. Those words wouldn’t have hurt me. And they might have brought him a little relief.