18

I've always felt that asking

"are you alright?"

even when someone just fell down 8 meters or got stabbed to be pretty ironic. Of course that person is not alright, that's obvious.

Yet, I've never found a better way of asking "how someone is doing", and although it seems the problem is finding the right formulation, I think the problem rather is: what do you want to know?

So, instead of asking if someone is alright, what should you say/ask if someone is in pain or other situation where you'd normally ask that question?

  • Is this specifically about accidents you're witnessing? Or also about things like chronic pain or bumping into someone you know has a hangover or whatever? – Erik Aug 17 '17 at 13:45
  • Primarily the situation where the other is clearly not alright. But for this situation, I'm wondering for a situation directly after the cause, not when you are in a hospital visiting your war damaged brother for the seventh time whose already used to having his leg amputated and chronic headaches. Just giving a rough example, sorry :) – Sander Schaeffer Aug 17 '17 at 13:48
  • In short p: just directly after someone is hurt and you have no clue how someone is feeling, except in pain. As small as a paper cut to as far as breaking every one. Just directly after the incident itself. – Sander Schaeffer Aug 17 '17 at 13:49
15

I think "Are you alright?" is a perfectly natural, empathetic, and non-invasive response; we want that person to be alright in spite of what we've just seen. The person probably wants to retain some semblance of dignity. It really covers a multitude of questions: do you think you're ok? Do you think anything is broken? Do you think you could walk? Should I call a doctor?

In a CPR situation, when you see someone passed out on the street (obviously not just napping), you're still supposed to shake them and ask loudly, "Are you OK?"

But if you feel silly asking it, then follow your natural response with a more reasoned one:

Are you alright? (Then, depending on the injury you just witnessed:)
- What can I do?/Can I help in any way
- Do you need help getting up?
- Do you think you can walk?
- Do you want me to call an ambulance?

About six months ago while chucking balls for my dogs to chase, I misstepped off a curb and fell onto the road, breaking my arm near the wrist. I lay there in the street trying to gather myself together and not cry out (it turns out it was badly broken). Two neighbors who saw this ran over and asked, "Are you ok?" It was the most natural thing in the world. I answered, "I think I broke my arm." From there, they got more specific: "Do you need help getting up?" "I'm driving you to the emergency room."

I won't go into cases where something serious just happened and you should call 911. (If you do want these questions, comment and I'll edit.)

Although it's a very different circumstance, student physicians are taught to ask seemingly stupid questions first (They're called open-ended questions.) The classic question is, "Why are you here today?" (Even if you know the answer.) In the Emergency Department where almost everyone is in pain, you are still expected to ask an open-ended question first. It gives you an idea of the patient's state of mind.

  • 1
    I've definitely been shouted at for asking 'Are you ok?' when the person obviously isn't. I still think this is a good answer, but be aware you could still get a negative response. Often when you do, it's not you it's them. – Pureferret Aug 17 '17 at 16:30
  • 1
    @Pureferret - I'm used to it. When I ask, say, why did you come in today?, I get, whaddayathink? or I told the nurse! As I said, the question tells you about the patient's frame of mind. If they say that, I know that they are either really cranky, in a significan't amount of discomfort, or they're disinhibited for some reason. The point of asking "Are you OK" is to initially assess consciousness and airway function. If they yell at you, you've done both, and CPR isn't necessary. – anongoodnurse Aug 17 '17 at 16:58
  • 1
    When was the last time you asked "are you alright?" when someone clearly was not, and they said "no"? I feel like it never happens... but wouldn't you rather know if the answer is no? Isn't that why you asked in the first place, or do you want to just fake sympathy? To me it's almost dishonest to ask the question. – Mehrdad Aug 18 '17 at 5:21
  • @Mehrdad - I fell and broke my arm about 6 months ago. Two of my neighbors were right there. As I lay in the street cradling my wrist, they ran over and asked "Are you ok?" I answered, "I think I broke my arm." From there they were more specific: "Let me drive you to the ER.", etc. It was the most natural thing in the world. It shows empathy and concern. It's better than, "What's wrong? Why are you laying in the street?" which sounds a bit harsh. – anongoodnurse Aug 18 '17 at 11:55
  • @anongoodnurse: But in your case it's not at all clear if you're actually injured, or if you're in just a bit of pain or a bruise. If it had been mere pain, you (and I) would have probably said "I'm OK", so it's a valid question to ask. The scenario we're talking about is when it's obvious the person isn't OK (see the first sentence in the question as well as the first sentence in my comment). – Mehrdad Aug 18 '17 at 12:07
8

I'm guessing you aren't looking for a social answer, but one which is medically important to the injured person's well being. Here are some common things to ask someone who is injured, without much of an 'escape' to say "i'm fine".

In an immediate emergency:

"Can you move?"
"Where does it hurt?"
"Point to where you are hurt"

Visiting someone; non-critical:

"I've heard that the treatment is more painful than the injury itself.
Is it true?"
"Are you feeling any better?"
"Can you move yet?" (careful with this one!)

You can also ask others about the status of someone in a similar manner...

Asking someone else:

"Has [Injured] improved?"
"How much longer before [Injured] is released?" (assuming they're in a hospital)
"Is [Injured] feeling any better?"
"What's [Injured]'s prognosis?"

2

TL;DR: in case of an accident, frame yourself in the image of a medical doctor or nurse and do what they would do. "Social" things need to step back there a little bit, I feel, until it is clear that there is no life-threatening, urgent medical issue (whether you can actually decide that, as a layman, aside). Also, keep in mind that people in shock are different than normal people; things like light body contact, eye contact, soothing voice etc. might just be more helpful than what words you use, exactly. Imagine yourself as a parent helping a little child (without the hugging/picking up part...).

someone just fell down 8 meters

Funny that you should mention that.

When bouldering recently, some lone stranger fell and hit her chin on the rock in a hard fall (same effect as a brutal "upper cut" in boxing with the complete body weight behind it). It was obvious that it was bad - not necessarily life-threatening, but at least a slight concussion/whiplash or even some face damage.

I think the problem rather is: what do you want to know?

You want to know if there is a urgent life-threatening issue first (breathing...); then, whether there is pain involved; then, whether they need help at all.

While she lay slightly dazed, I knelt down close to her in a way that she did not need to move her head to see me (but not touching) and did the following:

  • Made sure we had good eye contact and that she was actually aware of me. There was no blood and no obvious damage, she was generally moving, so the worst fears were dispelled quickly. Our eye contact was much more intense than would be appropriate of (different-sex) strangers just meeting on a street, but that was exactly correct at this moment. It was clear that there was fear in here eyes, and it helped her to literally see someone close.
  • If it had been impossible to make eye contact (eyes closed or not reacting), I would probably, depending on the situation, have calmy talked to her while making obvious but very light body contact (like 2-fingers-to-shoulder or whatever was appropriate). Think "lay on hands" instead of "poking".
  • She obviously smacked her teeth together substantially on the way down and was probably afraid to find out whether teeth (or bits of the tongue...) were missing. I asked her if she was bleeding or there were loose teeth; she said no.
  • I asked her where it hurts, she indicated the general head area, which was expected as she also hit the back of her head when hitting the floor mat.
  • I held her eyes the whole time in a conscious effort to make clear to her that I "got her". It was noticeable that that was a good thing as she held the contact as well and was not made (any more) uncomfortable by that.
  • I made sure to talk in an earnest but very calm, unhurried way, also giving her enough time to feel around her own body. This also seemed to work well.
  • I again asked very calmly if she had pain or if something felt wrong/numb, which likely put her in a state of analyzing the damage instead of being overwhelmed by fear; it prompted her to tell of a brutal headache; but I told her that I see no obvious damage in her mouth (no blood, no obvious teeth damage).

And so on (at that point, which took maybe 30-60 seconds, she slowly turned "normal" again, the immediate shock went away and other people came as well to help). There are plenty of things you can do and say. I don't even feel that asking "are you ok" in lieu of a "hello" would have been bad in any way.

I would probably tend to use "are you ok" if I happen upon somebody in obvious distress where I didn't see what happened, to see if there actually is a problem - in which case the question is not cynical or sarcastic, at all.

1

I'm from England, and I like to use "How are you?". It's pretty general, and doesn't presume they're okay.

Sometimes I change it up with "How are you doing?" or "How are you feeling?" if I know the person isn't 100% in the longer term, like they're ill or depressed or something.

In a more urgent situation, like they've just fallen down an 8m deep hole, it would be common for British people to be understated about it, peering over the edge and asking "Are you alright?" even though it's clear they're not.

0

Simple. Instead of;

"are you alright?"

Say;

"need anything?"

When I had cancer and was chemotherapy I head the "are you alright" question a lot, which was ironic, awkward, and felt hollow. Instead, I preferred if someone actually offered help instead of just asking me to respond.

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