If someone asks you “How are you?”, the correct response is “Fine, thank you”, unless that person is a close friend, and you happen to be in the midst of profound personal tragedy (illness in your family, incarceration of children, lost Sade CDs), in which case the appropriate answer might be, “Well, fine, but (mother dying or insert relevant trauma here). As a general rule, people aren’t asking “How are you, really?”, they are engaging in an acknowledgement ritual – it is polite to inquire about someone, even if you don’t expect a detailed answer, just to acknowledge that person, and your general concern with their well being. (As opposed to, say, just walking past someone with a nod or, worse yet, no acknowledgement, known in Victorian times as “cutting” someone, and considered a grave insult.)
There is a purpose to ritual, and part of that purpose is just to acknowledge the existence of our fellow human beings, and the fact that we all play by the same general rules of politeness; part of the social contract. If you don’t think this serves a purpose, just compare two scenes: in the first, think of when you have walked down a street, not speaking with anyone, not even glancing at people as they passed by. In the second, think of a situation where you exchanged a friendly “Hello” and a smile with people as they passed by. Which scene do you prefer?
This is especially true in commercial situations, where you are acknowledging that, even though you are engaging in a commercial transaction fundamentally motivated by one party’s desire for money, and the other party’s desire for some service, but the polite exchange of greetings – Good morning, how are you?, Fine thank you, and you? – acknowledges your common humanity. One mark of the true gentleman is that even when in a hurry, he does not sacrifice the common courtesies for brusqueness. He maintains decorum, even, and especially, in the face of anxiety and stress. Why is the James Bond character so alluring? Because he keeps his cool in the face of certain death, alluring women, and dastardly villains (often being one and the same thing).
And speaking of anxiety and stress, why, exactly, is everyone so concerned with appearing to be so busy, and under so much pressure? Is it because we’re afraid to appear unimportant if the world is not constantly demanding our attention? Personally, I manage to be engaged in several different business ventures, keep up with family and friends, and find time for my cat, without ever being terribly busy. Am I the only one? And, if so, what is everyone else really doing? I tend to think that “busy” is really just a synonym for “disorganized”; one reason I think this is that CEOs and other successful people tend to respond to my calls and emails much faster than their subordinates – is that because CEOs have less to do, or because they quickly respond to the task at hand, and then move on?
If someone asks “Are you busy?” as a pretext for speaking with you, the generally correct answer to that question is “No, what can I do for you?” If you are currently engaged in deciding whether to launch a worldwide nuclear strike, then the correct answer is “Yes, a bit, can you hold on a minute?”. It is much more impressive to give the impression that you are accessible and organized than to give the impression that, what with Prime Ministers, editors, and It girls on hold, you can just spare a minute. Again, the prime rule of gentlemanly manners is to make the other person feel that they are important to you, not that you are so important to the rest of the world that you can only spare them a moment of your precious time.
There is probably nothing that more distinguishes a gentleman from his brutish peers than a liberal sprinkling of thank you and please among his conversation, especially when he is dealing in commercial transactions or when dealing with those in an inferior position.