An acquaintance walks by at the grocery store while you're hazily caressing the avocados and asks you how you are, because it's only polite. "Oh," you say, dropping the avocado, "I'm fine, how are you?" "Fine, fine," they say, and everyone moves along.
You pass that coworker you kind of know in the hall and exchange nods: "How are you doing?" "Fine." The world is no better place for it but no worse, either. It's the smallest of small talk.
"How was your day?"
"Fine, and you?"
"Nothing much, all good."
"How's it going?"
These exchanges have the cast of sameness. They assure each participant in the conversation that we're still here, we're still breathing, though, really, our simple existence should have proven that.
More deeply, of course, these exchanges are part of a rough social code; as we go about our lives we must care about each other and the standard norms of etiquette at some bare minimum, just enough to acknowledge one another as humans, enough to smile and say hi — but not a lot more. After all, we don't really care enough to know the deeper truth about anyone's day, particularly if they're not a close friend. "How are you?" is not an invitation for you to tell me about how you had to quit your corporate job because it was killing your soul and after that you struggled with a bit of a drinking problem and now you're dating your ex-girlfriend's best friend but feeling like it could get out of hand, Mr. Lyft driver. I'm not here to have you answer more than "fine." I was just trying to be nice!
Personally, I stopped feeling fine on Nov. 8, and then it became very necessary, and almost visceral, to say so. My exchanges got kind of dark. "How are you?" an acquaintance would inquire. I tried out options ranging from vague negativity to previously unspeakable truths:
"Just got dumped, work's a mess, America's in crisis, and you?"
"I'm extremely angry and frightened about the state of the world and also personally disappointed by many of those around me. Is it possible you feel any different? If so, please excuse yourself from my presence."
Instead of recoiling or running away in horror, most of my friends and even a few strangers leaned in. "Me too!" they'd say. Or "I'm sorry to hear that, yeah, things are pretty rough around here, too." Suddenly we really were communicating, in a lot more personal fashion than "fine." And it kind of felt … good. I couldn't be the only one, right?
Informally surveying my Facebook friends, I asked, "What do you say when people ask you how you're doing? Have you stopped saying 'fine' because you're not? Does it depend? Do you grunt and poke them with a pen, because what use are pens anyway anymore?"
People divided into several camps. There were the fine absolutists, who always said fine and never thought you should say anything but fine, even if it was a lie. Varying from fine was a kind of social warfare, a destruction of the social compact.
Then there were the aspirationalists, who believed that saying you were fine — or good; great even! — was necessary to having it come true: "I look them in the eye and say, 'I'm wonderful, and yourself?'" said one. There were the slightly less aspirationalists, who went with, "Not bad, thanks" or "Okay, thanks," or "'I have no serious complaints' which is true in my day to day life if not my psyche."
There were even situational conversationalists who determined what they would say based on friendship levels, and conflicted grammarians who hated it when people said they were "good," but who felt it pretentious to say "well."
Some said they were "okay" to do a service to the listener. No need to weigh them down with the truth! Others thought it rude to go all-in on how bad their lives might be when others might have it worse. Plus, why socialize at all if you're not going to say fine; instead, fix what's ailing you!
There were the maximum revealers, who went with shock and awe to stop any further questions: "I respond that I have killer menstrual cramps and an oozing rash."
A sect of Southerners apparently say "fine as frog hair," which could shut down conversation pretty well too.
Others strategically used caveats to lightly acknowledge the state of the world without getting overtly political: "I mostly say something along the lines of 'Oh, you know' or 'Pretty good, considering,'" or "Good considering the world is ending." Others utilized the power of the pause: " I usually say, 'Oh, you know …' or maybe 'As well as can be expected given … everything.' The ellipsis has been key for me."
"Sometimes I just make a noise," one friend offered. "I sigh wearily and raise an eyebrow," offered a talented person who can raise just one eyebrow.
In 2014, Alina Simone wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled "The How Are You Culture Clash." In it, she examined how Americans stoically, even cheerfully, answer the question with "fine," but that's anathema to Russians, who will instead provide, "for better or worse, the truth. A blunt pronouncement of dissatisfaction punctuated by, say, the details of any recent digestive troubles." This isn't just a matter of habit, it's about English, she explained: "How are you?" can be traced to "How do you do?" which isn't so much a probing question as it is a form of "hi," and "often used as a mere greeting or salutation," per The Oxford English Dictionary. Simone wrote, "The anodyne exchange dates at least as far back as 1604, to Shakespeare's Othello, where Desdemona asks her husband, 'How is't with you, my lord?' and Othello replies, 'Well, my good lady.' Even though he is half-mad with jealousy and only five scenes away from murdering her."
Fine keeps the emotions in check, you might say, but as emotions start to boil over, it becomes less and less useful. After all, how can anyone really be fine with the world around us going apparently quite insane? And, if you really are fine, are you not some cold, callous creature who is already eschewing that social code of cursory caring in your own special way? How dare you be fine when others in the world are suffering? Shouldn't we all consider that none of us might be fine? Shouldn't we talk about that?
Simone's comparison of Russia and the U.S. is apt, and even more so in 2017, and in ways perhaps none of us quite expected. We might, in fact, take a tip from Russia. "In Soviet days, proclamations of joy, enthusiasm, and optimism were associated with state propaganda and officialese. As a citizen of a Communist utopia, you were pretty much supposed to feel fine all the time (never mind the time you spent squabbling over the communal stove or waiting in a two-hour line to buy toilet paper). So … a moan or a complaint would be considered a more authentic, non-state-sanctioned response to 'how are you.'"
"Fine" is a word that means you've acquiesced, you might say, to the situation at hand. Whatever it is, you're dealing with it and it needs no further discussion — move along, nothing to see, nothing to do, you're keeping it to yourself, whatever the truth of the matter may be. Which is why, given the choice, I'm choosing "terrible" — now, that's a word that's got some traction! No one lies and says they're terrible when they're not. And an acknowledgment of terrible means things have to change, or, at the very least, that you know exactly the state you're in, and, frankly, you don't care if others know it too. Quite probably, they should.
Then again, in this space on the time continuum in which we live, maybe the best option is not to ask people how they are at all, but instead to go around showing your emotions where it matters, on your face, or your proxy face: "Usually I always carry an emoji cut out on a stick I can whip out," a friend joked — at least, I think they're joking? "It says so much non verbally all the while masking a lie."