This is code for, “I am just exchanging an obligatory pleasantry, and I neither want nor expect a truly responsive let alone meaningful answer.” The proper response is a sing-song “fiiinnnne and youuuuuuuu?” You answer with a quick “fine” of your own and the conversation – if you can call it that – is over.
Just listen, these meaningless exchanges surround us. And when we ask the sing-song “how are you” question and get a genuine response like “Lousy, I have had a stomach virus all week, and my husband is an ass,” we are genuinely annoyed. We think to ourselves, gees, I’m sorry I asked. But we did ask – sort of! But alas our sing song invitation was ignored, and we got a truly responsive answer. Shame on them.
Next time you encounter a friend on the street, ask them how they are very matter-of-factly. They will look at you like you are from Mars(!), probably wondering if you know something or heard something worrisome about them.
This is not a judgment. We all do it and will always do it. It is fascinating though how early and eagerly we can turn one another away from a truly meaningful exchange of thoughts and ideas.