Here’s something I recently figured out:
Sometimes when people ask “how are you” or “what sort of day have you had” or stuff like that, it’s not so much out of wanting to know but out of a sense of courtesy because they really really want to tell you how they are, but they’ve been brought up on it being rude to talk about yourself first.
I feel really positive having figured this out, it’s really liberating for me – it means that I don’t have to try and answer that question on a deep level if I don’t feel like it! I can just say: I’m okay, and how are you? or: I’ve had a difficult day but would rather not go into that right now; but tell me, what sort of day have you had?
Because for me, listening comes easy, whereas opening up to share how I’m feeling – that’s something I don’t always feel up to, not even with someone close. So in these situations I need to signal to the other person: it’s ok, you’ve done your duty by asking about me first, and I’m okay with listening to you share what you need to.
P.S. I realise I talked about people asking not because they really want to know the answer, but sometimes it’s not that they’re not interested, it’s not a question of throwing the “how are you” at you as a superficial phrase for the sake of politeness, sometimes people ask you with a real desire to give you the opportunity to share how you’re feeling; but still, they’re doing it because they have a strong need to share something themselves and they don’t want to be rude and deprive you of the opportunity to share too. That’s really more the sort of thing I had in mind when writing the original post, but I realise I didn’t make that very clear.