Thursday, December 08, 2022


 I was chatting with a friend the one day day. Somebody mentioned "fine" as a response to "how are you."  She said she kind of hated it, perhaps because it was too vague or ambiguous. Like someone's cheating or chickening out of giving a real response.   

But me? I think I like "fine."  "Fine" is useful. It can be an excellent tester word.  For example, I like to talk about things. My life, my stuff, my feelings. But not everyone actually wants to hear this stuff, even after they've asked "how are you?"  And I might not be sure I want to go into anything. Being real is my modus operandi, but i still like to feel things out. It all depends. 

One night as Julian bolted up the stairs having washed the dishes, I yelled up to him, "Did you do a good job?" He yelled back, "I did a FINE job!" and was gone. Sean said to me, "I never know if 'fine' means more than good or less than good."   I agreed, and pondered at the beauty of its ambiguity. 

I did some extensive internet googling, and found on, the following snippet: 

 ... Fine also means that things are okay or acceptable, like when someone asks how you are and you reply, “I'm fine.” 

I wonder, though. Over the years, it could be that "fine," has taken on a certain connotation of being the opposite for some people.  Because if you're not "good" or "great," then you're really off. You're down. Things are not going well. Somehow, saying you're "fine" means you're not fine. Why? People expect people to be happy when exchanging pleasantries. There's a standard there. We need to show people we're great and we expect them to be great, too. Right? Admitting struggle can, at times, feel like a failing. Which is a bit of a bummer and perhaps a reflection of society in general. And expressing myself this way is not my style. It never feels accurate. I would never tell someone, "I'm great" unless I had an immediately explanation/reason. Who just walks around being great? Feeling great?  Just because? If I ever say this, you will know I am a LIAR. Probably the more "great" I am, the less I actually am, and the less inclined I am to actually tell you. Now that I think about it, I think the only time I ever say this is when I'm sitting in the dentist's chair.  

DENTIST: How are you today?

JEN: Fantastic.   Clearly.

DENTIST: Yeah? You seem like you really mean it.

JEN: Oh I do, I am thrilled to be here. It is the best. 

Yeah. I use that for sarcastic purposes. It's still fun though and shows my resignation, something I don't love but concede I must do from time to time. And to be quite honest, I don't totally loathe every dentist visit. Just the ones that end terribly. I've had a good run the past several visits.  

But I agree that "fine" can also take on a positive meaning like, "pretty good,"  or "decent,"  or "could be worse."  And to me, that's a pretty good standard of living.  Not great, but not horrible? Cool, that sits well with me.  Sounds about right for the living of life.  Especially for any given moment in a person's day.  We're all bound to have not great moments. In fact, I conjecture to say, that most of our day is filled with not particularly "great" moments.  If every minute of your day is fantastic and you couldn't be happier, then I am worried. These are the people who worry me. (annoy? bore?)  I almost can't handle talking to these people because it feels a little "sus" as the kids say. Often people use over-cheer as a cloak and that's ok. I'm interested to know more, but what you reveal is your prerogative. But an over-abundance of cheer can get to me.  "Fine" feels more honest. And if everything is great, is anything? 

But let's get back to me. So it may be that I'm not feeling particularly fantastic in a moment. So if someone asks, "hey, how are you?" I might pause, think a second, smile and nod and say, "fine."  And I watch them decide what they want to do with that response.  Because it can kind of mean whatever they take it to mean, want it to mean, have time for it to mean. 

A lot of people don't actually want to know if you're not doing well. It's hard for them. It's a scary place to come face-to-face with. There might be many reasons for this but I think one is that if you reveal your anything-but-unpleasant state to them, it's on them to fix it. They feel like they have to do something about it. It's more than they bargained for with their pleasantry. Obviously it's not on anyone to fix, but it might feel awkward to hear someone say "not great" and be like, "ok! See ya later!"  Or, "Oh, I'm sorry! Gotta run!"   Most people will feel obligated, perhaps confined to stay, talk it out, ask more questions when they only wanted to ask one question whose response they anticipated to be something else. And then they're held conversationally hostage, which is unpleasant. 

"How are you?"  

"Ugh, terrible"

"Oh uh.. I'm sorry!" (*regret, regret, regret! Back paddle*) "Well, take care"  


"Ohh... errr.. you... want to.. talk about it?" 

Brave is the soul who dares say those words. I give them all of my kudos.  

But it's uncomfortable. 

On the other hand, "fine" lets them decide how far they want to go here.   It's a conversational "choose your own adventure."  

Do I want to see where this goes? Or have this adventure end here so i can go to the grocery store (and have myself a whole new adventure). 

If "fine" means "not great, actually" and they're interested or not frightened away, they can say, "oh? Tell me more."   But if they don't actually want to know more, they can accept it as "good, not great" and feel ok not pursuing more in that conversation. They're not trapped, they're still free.  It's an acceptable response where they don't have to feel guilty for hearing someone say "not great" and not doing anything about it, which can happen.  Conversational accountability is a tricky one to navigate, and "fine" is an out.

"How are you?"


"Awesome. See ya!"

On yet another hand, if they do want to go there, if they are sincerely interested in how you're doing, they can take that opportunity to probe further.

"How are you?"

"Oh, fine"

"Yeah? Just fine?"

This has happened to me and guess what? I, in turn, can decide what I want to do. 
Because as far as deciding what it means, the same is true for me.  As the responder of "fine," I get to decide. I can choose which way it goes for me. If I mean it to mean not great, then I do. But it can also mean, "pretty good," depending on how I say it. 

"How are you?"


This can be confusing for someone who holds a negative connotation to "fine."  Why...did she say that so enthusiastically?  Being conversationally cryptic is sort of enjoyable. I might offer that response and cheerily walk on, leaving them to wonder. I just read an article where they list 25 words to stop saying if you want to improve your communication skills. (Click here to read in full). Supporters of team "fine = not fine," they included it on their list:

7. Fine. “Fine” is one of those words that just seems to come with a sigh attached. Again, it’s about breathing positivity and productivity into your space, not allowing yourself to become negative just because it’s easy.

 If I sighed while saying "fine," and then nothing more, I would also be twelve. I'm not though, so I don't do that. But if I'm feeling less than stellar and it's someone with whom I might not want to divulge a ton of information, I can keep it brief, while maintaining my emotional integrity/honesty.  And I can say reassuring things like, "oh, it's not been my favorite of days, but it's definitely not the worst, either."  This is reassuring because I ended on a note of positivity, which negates the sigh-attached "fine" people might find off-putting/scary. I have a friend who, when asks this questions, uses it as an opportunity to fill me in on how it's been going for her, while still ending positively.  Example:

"How are you today?"

"Better than yesterday."

We've both actually agreed to tack on "today" when asking this question because "how are you?" or "how've you been?" is much too broad. There is no way we could possibly accurately answer such a question, summarize our life of late. Were we to attempt, we never know how far back to go. It's too much. Adding "today" whittles it down for everyone. We've even gone on to say, "good, but if you'd asked me 10 minutes ago..." because we tend to... fluctuate, you might say. And we know that about each other. It's nice. 

Let's continue. Most people, I'll guess, won't press further-- "why isn't it your favorite?" but if they do, then I again can choose if I want to take it to that level. If you'd like to see what Jen means, turn to the next page of your adventure and further the story.  And maybe, just maybe, instead of it being cut suddenly short by our premature demise due to risking to go on, something potentially meaningful can happen. And that is where goodness lies (and, I'll say it again, adventure). Of course, I weigh it out. And I would never deliberately conversationally bait anyone. That's not my intention. If I mean to say a thing, I'll just say it. And though I often lack a filter, I'm typically not reckless. I choose carefully with whom I want to divulge. 

OR, you could meet some weirdo who, after having greeted them with the particular greeting of, say, "good morning!"  responds with:

“What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

Unsurprisingly, I would actually love if some weirdo did that to me. Because I love nothing better than a conscious conversationalist.  

To conclude, "fine" is a wonderful, mediating word.  (Mediate? Mediative?) As a scientist, I love introducing it as my control variable, seeing what it does, how it affects the other components. Its ambiguity is its super power.  Think about it--a word that can mean anything you want it to mean at any given moment? Well. That is just fine. 


Alanna said...

I agree with your assessment that fine is the perfect choose your own adventure word-- how much do you actually want to know about me???

I'm sort of weird because I do tend to be overly honest at times. If I'm having a bad day, I'll tell anyone who asks about it. I'm sure it's a turn off to people out there, but I don't really mind that. BUT. I've also had a spate of friends dealing with really crappy stuff, and the more I try to be a good friend to them through their struggles, the more I have to appreciate how great my own life is (at the moment-- I'm also learning to appreciate that things can turn on a dime) so I AM more likely to say something like, "I'm great!" when people ask now. For me, it's a way of acknowledging to myself that some people have REAL STRUGGLES and I'm super lucky to not be dealing those things at the moment. It would feel ungrateful to not be aware of that fact.

But that answer can also probably be obnoxious. Especially to those who are struggling. Hopefully they don't think I'm bragging or something...

On a different but related-to-your-blog-post note, I'm pretty sure people have written to Miss Manners (who I adore) complaining about being commanded to have a good morning by that generic greeting. Those people need to calm down in a big way. (Which is more or less what Miss Manners told them, but more politely.)

Over and out.

)en said...

"commanded to have a good morning" makes me el-oh-el. "NO! You're not the boss of me!" oh that is great. Miss Manners is the best.

Great thoughts. No, people should feel free to answer exactly as they wish. I see no problem with using "great." I regret if my post was confusing which is 900% was. I definitely don't think one ought to downplay their good feelings at any time. I mean, 99% of the time. If someone had just told you something sad and then you respond all cheerily.. that's.. yeah. Maybe not the best time. But otherwise.

I also appreciate the mention of attitude. Because yes, it may be all relative, and maintaining perspective is a good, good thing.

Alanna said...

Oh no, your post wasn't confusing! I just had to defend my too-sunny-to-be-believed answer! {laughing crying emoji}

Mostly I just really agreed that "fine" is a wonderful response for testing the waters!