The mystery of “I’m fine”

I’m a nineteen-year-old girl.

When you read that, what did you think? Did you assume something about my maturity, my intellect, my experience? Did you assume that I say “I’m fine” when I’m not, hoping someone will fish something out of me?

The truth is this: usually when I tell people I’m fine, it’s because I actually am perfectly fine. And when I use it as a lie, it’s because I don’t feel like talking about it.

I’m not asking people to fish things out of me. That’s rude and an unfair expectation to have of somebody. I’m not going to clam up just so someone else is forced to pry me open. I’ll open up when I want, clam up when I want, and enforce clear boundaries about myself and my emotions.

When you say “I’m fine” because you want someone to fish something out of you, you are making the following statements:

  • Don’t trust me when I tell you something. Maybe I’m being ingenuine because I want you to fish something out of me.
  • Don’t respect my boundaries. When I tell you to leave me alone, when do you know that I secretly want you to chase after me? So, the best course of action is just to press me when I tell you not to.
  • Your time is not valuable. I would rather you wasted time trying to figure out the puzzle that is me rather than being up front with my feelings.

These messages are harmful both for the speaker and the recipient of the infamous “I’m fine.”

An example of the “I’m fine” culture that comes to mind is when I was writing on Quora and I’d get random DMs from people. Some of them were interesting, funny, or sweet, but a good amount of them were the following:

  • “hi.” That’s it. No introduction, no nothing. Just “hi.” What do you want me to do with that? Say “hi” back?
  • “You’re pretty…” Block, report, etc. I got a lot of random people trying to flirt with me, often a decade or more older than me. It was gross and a big reason why I pulled down all photos of myself available to the public. It still happened, but far less often. Thank God for vanity.
  • “How are you?” Um…fine?

And thus introduced the problem. Before I became a seasoned veteran and learned to immediately filter out the weirdos based on the first message alone, I’d reply to every message I got — including the “hi” and “how are you” messages. These almost invariably resulted in uncomfortable encounters with socially awkward people who would usually try hitting on me.

One “how are you” encounter sticks out to me, because I replied, “I’m fine.” The goal of my message was clear: “Who are you, random dude who thinks you’re entitled to know how my day went?”

And he replied: “What’s wrong?”

Me: Nothing.

Him: Something is on obviously wrong, or else you wouldn’t have written “I’m fine.”

Me: I’m legitimately fine.

Him: It’s okay, you can tell me.

It went on like this (again, this was before I learned to just stop responding or even block people if they got too insistent), with him convinced I was upset about something and it was his duty to fish it out, while I was getting more aggravated because he wouldn’t believe me.

You know how this situation could have been avoided? If, when I said, “I’m fine,” he took my word for it.

Here’s my advice: you ask a girl (I’m saying a girl because usually it is one) whether she’s okay, and she says, “I’m fine.” It’s clear she is not fine and she wants you to fish it out of her.

My advice would be this: just ask, “Are you sure?”

If she says yes, then say, “Okay. Well, if you’re having trouble with something, I’m happy to talk about it.”

That accomplishes two things:

  1. You show her you won’t play her game. You’re not going to sit there for several minutes convincing her to tell you something she wants to tell you in the first place. If she wants to open up about something, she needs to be an adult about it and be honest and up-front about what she wants. Communication is important, and mature people don’t waste their time on games.
  2. You support and care about her. By making it clear that she still has the option of opening up to you, you are saying that you are happy to talk to her if she needs you. Even though you disagree with the style in which she is asking for your attention, you are saying she is still deserving of it as long as she communicates with you about what she really wants.

Now, if she tells you she’s fine and you aren’t sure whether she is or isn’t, say, “Okay, good; I’m glad you’re fine.” This reinforces #1 — that you won’t play her games — along with #2 — that you really do care about her — and tacks on a little extra to #1, which is a statement of, “If you want to tell me something, tell me. I’m not going to put effort into figuring you out just because you’re not bothering to communicate with me.”

My conclusion is as follows: if you’re not find and you want to talk about it, say so. Stop wasting everyone’s time. And if you’re in the receiving end of an “I’m fine,” treat it like the bullshit it is and don’t bulldoze a girl’s boundaries because she thinks she’s doing herself a favor. She’s sabotaging the both of you and you need to stand up for your needs as a human being who has a limited amount of time.

Professional writer, editor, and tutor; social justice advocate; Orthodox Jew; dedicated Grammar Auror

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