I hopped into the passenger seat of my mom’s 2007 Trailblazer, chucked my backpack into the backseat, and crossed my fingers that she’d put the car in gear and peel out of the high school parking lot before anybody managed to see me.
As she began to pull away from the curb, she jumped right in with her standard line of questioning. “How was school today?” she said, glancing over at me.
“Fine,” I responded—because that’s pretty much all of the common courtesy a moody high school freshman can muster for the very person who endured labor pains only to be met with endless scowls and eyerolls.
But, in all honesty, things weren’t fine. I had totally forgotten about my history quiz. There was insane, heart wrenching, seemingly earth-shattering drama brewing in my friend group. And, the cafeteria decided to pour salt in my wounds by serving spongey fish sticks for lunch. For little high school me, my day really couldn’t have been worse.
I wasn’t about to dive into the juicy details with my mom. So, I indulged her with that curt and vague one-word answer, hoping she’d move onto something else or—preferably—just stop talking altogether.
Today? Well, I’m no longer a grouchy and hormonal teenager (thank goodness—and I’m so sorry, mom!), but I’ve realized something: I still say the word “fine” a lot. And, even worse, I have the tendency to let that word slip out of my mouth when things are anything but fine.
“Fine” Never Means “Fine”
I’ll resist spouting definitions at you, but the word “fine” all by itself is meant to represent that things are going well—exceptionally even. Use the word in a phrase like “fine dining” or “fine jewelry,” and you’re picturing something of the highest quality.
But, let’s be honest—that’s not what most of us mean when we let this four-letter word fall from our lips. Instead, we often use it to express total mediocrity, or even displeasure.
This is a concept that Claire Lew eloquently explores in her article for Basecamp’s Medium publication.
“To me, ‘fine’ is the ultimate indicator of apathy and discontent,” she explains in the piece, “’Fine’ means a standard is barely being met. ‘Fine’ means there’s the potential for something to be better. ‘Fine’ means there’s more to learn and dig into.”
I’ll admit, this wasn’t anything new to me. I’m consciously aware of the fact that we all almost always substitute this word in when what we really mean is, “Well, not so great.”
However, what Lew’s article did do is encourage me to begin paying closer attention to when this little word cropped up—whether it was me saying it, or someone else saying it to me.
Striving for More Than “Fine”
For example, I recently drafted an article that I was almost ready to submit. I gave it one last read and—even though something still felt a little off in the introduction—I told myself, “Nah, it’s fine.” But, the second that phrase crossed my mind, I stopped for a minute. Was I really happy with how this turned out? Or, was it worth taking a few extra minutes to make some tweaks and get it past just “fine?”
Similarly, an editor asked me if I could add an entire section to my piece. I told her that I could, but that I’d need some time to pull additional information from my sources, as we hadn’t discussed that angle. “Oh, never mind. This is fine then,” she replied back in her email.
Previously, I would’ve accepted her statement at face value and breathed a sigh of relief that I managed to avoid some extra work. But, thanks to my conscious awareness of this pesky little word, I decided to press her.
“Are you sure? I’m happy to find that information and add it to the piece—it won’t take me long!” I wrote back.
As I’m sure you can imagine, she enthusiastically agreed to that option. Had I never retorted, we would’ve published something that I knew she thought was subpar.
Yes, occasionally people use the word “fine” to state that something really is adequate. However, tone and context will serve as a solid indicator of whether or not that person really means things are acceptable—or, if he’s just trying to find a way to avoid telling you that there’s room for improvement.
If you suspect the latter category, don’t hesitate to ask a few follow-up questions to see if you can get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Or, if you find that you’re relying heavily on this oftentimes passive aggressive word yourself, take a little bit of time for some reflection to identify how you’re really feeling and find a more descriptive way to explain your thoughts.
Just ask high school me (or, I’m sure, high school you)—“fine” is an easy word to lean on. But, it can also be misleading, which means you’re usually better off staying far away from it. As Lew concludes in her article, “‘Fine’ never means ‘things are fine.’”
Photo of people talking courtesy of Lumina Images/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author