The How Are You Doing Project is an interactive audio experiment that invites anyone and everyone to call an anonymous hotline and respond to the most frequently posed question of them all.
But most callers’ responses transcend the usual “fine” or “good” of everyday exchanges, diving deeper into revealing stories, testimonials, and confessions. As creator Laura Mayer says, the project is an exercise in everyday empathy.
In this excerpt, "Three Tiers," Laura identifies a three-tiered trend in calls to the hotline. Two more excerpts from the How Are You Doing Project, "Navy Story" and "Latest Installment," are available in the Extras section below.
Laura Mayer is a journalist living in New York City. She graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is interested in interactive audio storytelling within an online environment. Her work has appeared on the Third Coast Festival’s Re:sound, WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight, WNYC’s Art/Culture blog and Time.com. (Full disclosure! Laura was also the Third Coast Festival's trusty web intern in the Spring of 2009.)
Check out the How Are You Doing Project online and contribute your own voice to the project!
Find more work by Laura on her website.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Laura Mayer
What inspired you to start this project? What made you think it was something people would respond to (which they obviously have)?
I tend to fixate on the little things that I –- and those around me -– do on a daily basis. If you’ll let me, I will ask you what you ate for breakfast, if you saw anything good on the bus this morning, how your roommates’ milk-stealing habit is shaking out, etc. This is all to say that I think the little details –- and the stories and rationales that go along with these details –- are what compose the building blocks of our everyday narratives, which comprise the larger arcs of our lives. I consider the asking-of and the listening-to these little stories as a sort of everyday empathy. It’s the way that we build relationships with one another. That’s the reason why “How are you doing?” is such a convenient introductory conversational crutch –- it’s such an effective point of casual connection between two people that can lead to so much more than a passing comment. But we’re often too busy to slow down and take the question at face value. I started the How Are You Doing Project as a way to really listen to these everyday stories –- to realize how important they are among all of us, every day of our lives.
I think the project has been successful because of how relatable the messages are to everyone. Also, the messages are short, so they’re easy to consume. I think of them as a type of flash non-fiction.
Do you ever wish you could respond to the calls that come in to the HAYD hotline? If so, which ones?
Absolutely. I listen to every one of the calls. It’s a really personal process. Many of the calls are very intense. There’s a lot of real emotion –- hurt, sadness, happiness, and isolation –- within the messages. While the callers have listened to the other stories from the podcast, and they know that their calls could be broadcast throughout the Internet, they are calling one number from their personal phone, which leads to a message with my voice. It’s very one-to-one in that sense. I feel guilty, almost, when listening to the heaviest of calls –- like I’m overstepping a personal boundary.
Often callers will begin their message with some sort of preamble -– most of the time about the weather -- and then drop off into something much deeper. As a listener you’re lulled into that familiar conversational pattern. Then, suddenly, the casual conversation drops out and you’re dropped in the realm of the ultra-personal. It’s these sort of calls in which I can hear a palpable loneliness, especially from the timbre of their voices. The need for the talking-about-the-weather disclaimer makes them sound sheepish over admitting to not doing well, which is something that I think we all can understand. Those really affect me and make me want to reach out to them. But, ethically, I could never respond directly to any of the calls. That would destroy the anonymity of the project.
How does anonymity influence people’s responses to the question, “How are you doing?”
I think that the anonymity allows for the callers to be honest. It allows them to get to the meat of what they want to say much more quickly than in a face-to-face conversation. Also, because there’s no direct feedback from the message line –- meaning, there’s no one on the other line to verbally react to the messages -- the callers talk about how they are doing without having to anticipate a certain response from another person.
Which call has been the most memorable?
Navy Story is my most memorable call. In fewer than three minutes a woman tells the story of making a deal with God to join the navy, and how this deal had disappointed a man whom she had just met on the Internet. Her words said so much in this short call, but it was the power of her voice that really created this arc. At the end of the call she says that she “was just sad because of the way his voice sounded.” She gets off the phone really quickly -– almost hanging up –- and you can hear in her stilted “goodbye” how much she realized she had said in the message.
Have you noticed any patterns to the ebb and flow of calls? (For example, times when people are more likely to call? Particular days?)
Most of the calls come at night, or in the evening hours. I imagine that people call while commuting or waiting in line to kill time. I get a lot of calls from students talking about procrastinating homework. And also, there’s a curious breed of call that comes during the twilight hours on weekends: the drunk dials. Those calls are usually from younger people and made while hanging out with their friends. They’re a rare delight.
There’s one caller that calls in during his lunch break. He works at a research university and, from what I can gather, has to walk up and down a hill to get in and out of the building. I know this from hearing him huffing-and-puffing as the wind wicks in and out of the message whenever he calls.
How are YOU doing?
I’m doing great! That’s actually how I usually answer THE question. I can never resign myself to the grammatical-correctness of saying “I’m well.” I just moved to New York City, so I’ve been enjoying walking around the neighborhood and looking at things. There’s this tiny pet shop down my block that always has a mess of tiny, scuttling puppies falling all over themselves in the window. I stood in front of the window for a little while this evening and it was like watching a fluffy windstorm. That really made my night.
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