It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that one of the worst questions you can ask another person is: What have you been up to? It’s a really common thing to ask; a bit like: How are you? Except that it’s not like How are you? It often evokes a very different reaction – and not a good reaction.
It’s amazing how often this issue is brought up in my office. Most commonly, it’s a couple who discuss the arguments triggered by this simple question. Stay-at-home mums explain how the question makes them feel as if their job as the primary carer is not valuable. They struggle to justify how they have spent their day and they feel inadequate and judged by their partner. The partner is quick to point out that it’s just a greeting – not a judgment, but it doesn’t come across that way. In fact, stay-at-home mums often hate anyone asking this question – unless it’s asked by another stay-at-home mother for exactly the same reason – they feel as if the question requires a response that justifies their existence. (Stay-at-home dads may also dislike the question, but I haven’t heard them make the same complaint.)
What have you been up to? also upsets the many people who are between jobs or who are unable to work. For those seeking employment, this question leaves them stumbling for a credible answer and again they fear being judged. The person asking the innocent question would have no idea of the angst they may have just triggered.
The teenager hates the question because it suggests disapproval for sleeping in or watching clips on YouTube even if it’s a weekend or the holidays.
Even if you are not between jobs and you’re not a stay-at-home parent or a teenager, being asked to sum up your recent experiences is not an appealing invitation. You might be at a social function or you run into someone at the shops and if you’re asked: What have you been up to? your mind can instantly go blank as you try to find something worth mentioning. So we trot out responses like: I’ve been really busy or This and that or Not much and then it’s our turn to ask – And what have you been up to? and it’s their turn to try to outline their highlights.
Finally, for those countless people who are struggling with grief or depression or an addiction, being asked: What have you been up to? could trigger more pain for those who are not in any state to take it.
If it’s being discussed so much in my little office, it must be affecting a lot of people in the general population. So maybe we can all try to make our questions easier to answer or we should just stick to: How are you?