When Jasmin’s boss asked her to stay back in office and work late, she thought longingly of the movie she wanted to go and see with her friends. She muttered a quiet ‘Yes, that’s fine’, but later, while she was still at work, tired and hungry, her mobile phone rang. It was her mum, asking how she was.
‘I’m fine, Mum, how are you?’ she replied wearily, as her mum started to chat about her day, leaving Jasmin feeling no-one cared about the day she’d had.
The problem was, her mum and her boss did care, but Jasmin, a clerical officer, had used an auto-response. She wasn’t fine and it wasn’t fine that she stayed behind and did the extra work. She was bored, she felt piled on, her eyes ached from checking addresses and phone numbers, and she couldn’t think straight.
There were hundreds of adjectives she could have used to describe how she felt, but she chose the one with the least meaning – fine. Yet, it’s also the one that causes the least hassle, because no-one questions you when you say you’re fine.
Like 22-year-old Jasmin, we all use the word fine in different contexts, and most of the time it has a bland feel to it.
‘It’s a word with little meaning in most contexts,’ says Phil Olley, a specialist in business and personal focus, and author of Result: Think Decisively, Take Action and Get Results. ‘If you were a chef and someone posted a review of your restaurant, saying, “The food is fine”, you wouldn’t be flattered, but you also wouldn’t be offended. When we hear the weather’s going to be fine, we’re not 100 per cent sure what that means.’
Yet it’s one of our most popular replies. When we’re asked how we are, UK-based Phil says about 87 per cent of people reply with ‘fine’. Ten per cent of people will chronicle all the bad things that have happened to them that day, from their mother being taken to hospital to the kids forgetting to do their Geography homework. A mere 3 per cent will be upbeat and cheerful, and answer, ‘I’m wonderful, thank you. I’m having a great day.’
‘Fine is like a default reply,’ says Phil. ‘When you tell someone you’re fine, you’re really telling them you don’t care enough about them or their question to answer them properly. It signals you’re not going to put any effort into the relationship between the two of you. It’s like a full stop. It doesn’t encourage anyone to progress with the conversation.
‘When you’re on the receiving end of the word ‘fine’ after you’ve asked how someone is, you feel unimportant and average. Those who say they’re fine are people who don’t want to stand out. They hide behind the word.
Dubai-based Adam Zargar, Head of Empowerment Coaching for 2blimitless (www.2blimitless.com), agrees that the word can be ‘a stock automatic response’, but he adds that the person may have looked at the situation and decided whether they wanted to give a bigger and more detailed response.
‘If you say fine when your parents ask how your date was, you’re saying you don’t want the conversation to go on any longer,’ explains Adam. ‘By not giving any details or asking anything back, you’re making it clear you want the conversation to end.
‘Depending on how it is said, using the word ‘fine’ could mean you’re not in the mood to chat, you’re too embarrassed to talk about a topic, you’re not confident to speak in depth or you just don’t trust the person talking to you.’
The word ‘fine’ is also used when we’re being dishonest, or afraid to be honest about our feelings. Like Jasmin, most of us tell our bosses and spouses that things are fine when they’re not, or we snap the word and slam a door, because our partners haven’t unloaded the dishwasher or picked up the dry cleaning.
‘It’s used in a very misleading way,’ says Phil, who coaches people from all over the world. ‘If a husband and wife have an argument because he couldn’t make it to a restaurant where they’d booked a table for dinner, when he apologises, his wife may say: “It’s fine”.
‘Whatever she says, her body language may tell her husband it isn’t fine to stand her up at dinner, but there’s a danger her husband may take her at her word. If that happens, he may assume everything is OK between them and that such behaviour is acceptable.’
Adam adds that using the word fine could cause trust issues for us.
‘The person hearing you are fine might get upset that you are not opening up and trusting them so they back off too,’ he says. ‘They could look for someone else to befriend or confide in.
‘Also, if you say you’re fine with things and you’re not, then nothing that is making you unhappy will change and it might lead to you having to put up with more of that type of behaviour or situation.’
So while ‘fine’ may seem bland and innocuous, it can be incredibly misleading, and its use may cause us more problems than we bargained for, with relationships, impressions and boundaries being challenged.
But what can we do about it? Surely the answer isn’t to tell the world a long list of miseries every time they ask how we are, or fight every battle around the home and at work?
‘We all have something we can be grateful for, so most of us are better than fine,’ says Phil. ‘It may be a case of enjoying the sunshine or having the time to go shopping.
‘I don’t expect people to go around giving each other high-fives, but there are always positives. When you reply in a positive way, you spread good energy. When you meet someone for the first time, adopt strong positive body language. Get a good posture, smile, look them in the eye and give them a powerful handshake and when they ask how you are, tell them you’re feeling terrific.’
If you’re stuck in a rut and say fine automatically, Phil recommends having a fine for saying fine. Every time you use the word, just put some cash into a pot.
‘Use the money for charity or to have a night out at the end of the year,’ he says, ‘but just fining yourself will make you more aware that you’re saying it. As a habit, it will reduce until you no longer say it at all.
‘Another trick is to put an elastic band around your wrist. Every time you say the word ‘fine’ as an automatic reply, flick the band. This creates awareness about the habit, and after a while, you will subconsciously stop yourself from saying it.’
However, the word fine has a more significant impact on our lives when we direct it towards ourselves. When we think our relationships and our jobs are fine, we keep ourselves stuck, with no room or desire for improvement. ‘We settle for fine rather than strive for brilliant because it keeps us in our comfort zone,’ says Adam. ‘We fear what lies on the other side of our truth and we tell ourselves a story to keep us from growing. That way, we don’t have to face our fears and be honest.’
Adam suggests we write down what saying fine is stopping us from having, being and doing. He advises we look at where we’ll be in six months, a year and five years if we continue to accept the status quo.
For example, if we tell ourselves our health habits are fine, it may be we’ll still be overweight and smoking 30 cigarettes a day in six months’ time, but in five years’ time we may have serious lung problems or diabetes. If we don’t spend any quality time with our partners, and tell ourselves our marriage is fine, we might drift apart over six months, and could well be divorced within five years.
Adam also suggests we rewrite the scenario but this time, imagine our lives to be amazing. When we do this, we’ll have regular dates with our partners, which will bring us closer, or a healthy diet and lose weight. We’ll have kicked the smoking habit, and being able to breathe better will encourage us to take up running. We’ll be the picture of health and fitness a long way from the ordinary person who started out on the exercise.
‘Make your list of benefits a long one,’ recommends Adam, ‘and that will keep you on track. Remember, the longer the list, the easier it will be to finally kick fine in the gut!
‘In a world without the word ‘fine’ everyone would have a clear understanding of their feelings, emotions and expectations, as well as a clear idea of the path to take. There would be no grey area. Most people would set amazing goals and strive to reach them!’