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It’s the stock response to any inquiry about how you’re feeling in this country. You run into someone at the grocery store, you ask how that person is doing, the response is “I’m fine.” Your partner is curled up in the armchair with a frown, and if you ask what’s up, “I’m fine” is what you hear.
Everybody’s doing just fine.
On Reddit, someone evidently asked “Why do women say ‘I’m fine’ when they’re clearly not?” (I can't find the original thread, which is the only reason I'm not linking/giving credit to the poster.) I’m assuming in this case that the original poster wasn’t referring to the social convention of saying you’re “fine” in response to casual inquiries when the person doesn’t actually want to know and is following a social formula (grocery store, teller line at the bank, post office, etc.), but rather to the particularly charged usage of “I’m fine,” that of situations where two people are clearly on the brink of an argument, but one person doesn’t want to talk about it.
This is often cast in terms of a romantic relationship, specifically a heterosexual one, and there’s a stereotype that it’s cold-faced passive-aggressive bitches who do this, saying “I’m fine” instead of talking about their feelings when their caring boyfriends try to reach out. Expecting their dudes to magically read their minds, divine what is wrong, and fix it. But this actually happens in all kinds of friendships, and in all kinds of genders.
So before I can really address the Redditor’s question, I feel like I need to address the sexism embedded in it. Because the fact is that saying “I’m fine” in response to a genuine attempt to open up a conversation is not limited to women, because we are all taught to limit expressions of emotion. Emotions are bad, particularly when it comes to things like anger, jealousy, or sadness. Casting it as a uniquely female problem is a reminder of gendered attitudes about emotional expression and communication.
For women, being “emotional” is further evidence of weakness and inferiority. Among men, being emotional is, of course, tantamount to being a woman, which is considered a bad thing. Thus, there’s tremendous pressure on men and women to not express their emotions, or to do so in very muted tones, especially in loaded situations. There are some additional gendered pressures going on too, which I’ll get to in a moment, but it’s important to make the point that this stereotype of an emotionally cold female partner who refuses to talk leaves out the fact that conversations about emotions are complicated.
So when people in general say they’re “fine,” they’re expressing a socially conditioned response. They’re supposed to be okay, so they’ll say so; they’ll front in order to divert the conversation, sending it into safer waters. Talking about emotions means admitting they’re happening, which is often frightening.
But why do women in particular tend to get saddled both with the stereotype of saying “I’m fine” and with the tendency to do it? Women are taught not to take up space, to be small and meek and to subvert their needs to those of the people around them. They’re taught that if they want to be taken seriously, they need to be “strong,” which translates to not expressing emotion. Women are also taught to be nice at all costs, and nice people don’t burden other people with their problems, let alone hold other people accountable for causing those problems. And especially in relationships, they can learn that expressing emotion is actually dangerous.
“I’m fine” has become a dark, twisted placeholder for actual communication, as becomes clear in Christina Gleason’s post rounding up some women’s reasoning behind saying “I’m fine.”
Some women say “I’m fine” because they need time to process and want space. And they know that if they say, “I appreciate that you are asking me how I am doing, but I need some time to think,” they’re going to be pressured to talk about it. Even if they aren’t necessarily ready and don’t actually know quite how they feel yet. That can result in a conversation that goes bad quickly, and once said, words cannot be unsaid.
Others may say it because they just don’t have the energy for a protracted conversation or a fight. It may be based on past experience and the knowledge that when you express feelings, your partner overrides them and tries to gaslight you, convince you that you’re wrong. You’re upset because your partner came home late, again, and didn’t warn you beforehand? Why can’t you respect the fact that your partner is working hard and is tired? Suddenly your partner is the victim here, for being “hounded” the minute he walked in the door.
For some, it’s a defense mechanism because there’s too much to deal with. You have to be “fine” because there’s no time for you to be not-fine. Kerry S. pointed out that as a busy woman with a lot going on in her life, she falls into that trap a lot, and Mary Davis reinforced it with her note that women are expected to nurture. When you’re put in charge for caring for others, you can’t express signs of weakness or let your facade crack, because then everything breaks away.
Sometimes the story is just too long or complicated or you know the asker genuinely won’t care. So you say “I’m fine” because the thought of getting into it is exhausting and you’d rather push whatever it is to the back of your mind; sometimes talking about something brings it all up and you just feel worse, so you kind of just want to not think about it for a while.
There’s an almost hostile attitude behind the frequent demands for “women” (as though women are an amorphous, interchangeable mass) to explain why they say, “I’m fine.” It’s a sharp reminder of the demanding tone that tends to prevail in situations where women are pressured to talk when they’re not ready or need time to deal with something before they can approach a conversation. There’s an expectation here that women should be ready on everyone else’s schedule to deal with everything, including their own emotions.
Yet people actually have the right to emotional autonomy, and they can decide when, how, and where to deal with their feelings. Feelings are hard! Sometimes walking away from a conversation or postponing it to another time really is the most appropriate thing to do; it’s safer for everyone, and will result in a more productive discussion. It may sound dorky, but a ten-minute time out is sometimes a really good idea, even when you’re a grownup.
Maybe people would stop saying “I’m fine” if they were allowed to admit that no, they’re actually not fine, but they’re not in a position to deal with it just yet.