“British scientists have unveiled a new wristband which can tell what sort of mood you’re in. Men are especially excited about it as they hope to finally gain an insight into what a woman means when she says she’s ‘fine’.”
– Opening joke from Breaking the News, 5th July 2019
There’s a common trope that when a woman says ‘I’m fine’ actually she’s fuming, and it’s someone’s job (usually her partner’s) to solve the puzzle and find out what’s actually wrong before everything explodes in a shower of icky female emotions. It’s a fun game, right straight lads? Having to guess what your partner actually means when she says ‘I’m fine’? Haha women are so mysterious, and men will never be able to figure us out!
I want to tackle why this trope annoys me, but before I do I just want to say that I love Breaking the News: it’s a great comedy news quiz that routinely hires women – excellent, funny, brilliant women. I’ve used their joke as an example here just because it’s what prompted the post, rather than because I think the show is terrible. It’s a great show, you should listen to it if you’re into things like The News Quiz and HIGNFY. However, it also occasionally buys in to stereotypes about men and women because we live in a society that encourages that sort of thing. Please don’t send me letters about how Breaking the News is actually good: I know. It really is.
So let’s have a look at what it means when a woman says ‘I’m fine.’
Women… or everyone?
The first reason this gendered trope annoys me is because saying ‘I’m fine’ when actually you’re struggling with some inner turmoil is absolutely and unequivocally not just a ‘women’s’ trait. Like most things we tend to attribute to one gender or another, it’s actually just a human trait which we spin in different ways so we can slot it neatly into our existing stereotypes about what men and women are supposed to be like.
Consider this: when saying ‘I’m fine’ is framed as a way to maintain inner mystery and keep the interlocutor guessing, it’s presented as an inherently feminine. Women are such mysterious creatures! If instead you frame it as an inability – or unwillingness – to articulate emotions, suddenly it becomes a masculine thing. Men, after all, shouldn’t ever talk about their emotions or their mental health. Finally if I tell you that ‘I’m fine’ is just an attempt to keep a stiff upper lip and not make a fuss, it magically becomes not male or female but a British thing. After all, we British are famous for replying to ‘how are you?’ with ‘I’m fine’ even if we’re lying in bed with a raging temperature and plague pustules protruding from our damp bits.
So. Point 1: the joke is that women say ‘I’m fine’ when they’re not, but the truth is that we all do this to varying degrees, for different reasons depending on individual circumstances.
What it might mean when someone says ‘I’m fine’
Point 2 is that when someone says ‘I’m fine’, often what they mean is ‘I don’t want to talk to you about my inner turmoil right now.’ There are many many possible reasons for this, some of them wholly legitimate.
Here are a few things that I mean when I tell someone that ‘I’m fine’:
- I am actually, genuinely fine.
- I am a bit down but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.
- I am frustrated by something you have done or said, but I’m worried that my frustration is irrational, so I don’t want to bother you with it until I’ve had a chance to calm down, because it might not be fair of me to criticise.
- I am frustrated by something someone else has done or said, but it doesn’t seem appropriate to bitch to you about it.
- I am frustrated/sad/angry about something, but right now I have a tonne of work/cleaning/packing/admin to do and I don’t have the brain space to have a full-on discussion about it.
- If I explain this thing to you, I might hurt your feelings, and I would rather not do that.
- I don’t know you well enough/feel close enough to you at the moment to let you in to a worry that is quite personal and complex.
- I am frightened of the way you might react if I tell you the truth.
Some of these get to the heart of why the ‘women always say they’re fine but they don’t mean it lol!’ trope fucks me off: sometimes I say I am fine because I genuinely am, or because it’s none of your business, in which case you trying to solve the puzzle of my inner turmoil like it’s a fun Rubik’s Cube is actually going to make the situation worse. Other times I’m actively trying to protect you. In most cases, ‘I’m fine’ is a way for me to take a step back from a situation so that I can assess things a bit more rationally when I’m not in the midst of stress or frustration. It is, I suspect, partly a learned trick for me to try and avoid yet another tedious stereotype – the idea that ‘women are too emotional.’ If I am not fine, and I want you to take my concerns seriously, I have a much higher chance of you doing that if I can approach you a little after the fact and discuss them calmly, rather than bursting into tears in the moment and potentially being accused of emotional overreaction.
‘I’m fine’ might mean ‘I’m frightened of you’
While we’re on the topic of emotion, let’s consider the final point on my list above: I’m frightened of the way you might react. This is not common for me, but it is there: the knowledge that there are some people whose response to hearing my honest feelings is to fly off the handle – getting angry and potentially violent. I am very lucky, because I have not known many people who are like this, but I absolutely have known some: friends or relatives or partners whose moods tip me into fight-or-flight mode, and prevent me from being able to express how I feel in the moment. I am lucky in that I have not met with much physical violence at the hands of people I’ve known, but I have certainly been subject to a lot of explosive rage: shouting, banging of tables, punching walls and the like.
Even if you personally would never do this shit, you have to acknowledge that other people doing this shit has an impact on how many of us behave. Not all men, or all partners, or all friends, will punch walls and scream if you tell them they’ve upset you, but enough of them do it that it leads some of us to temper our responses to avoid potential trouble. Sometimes the risk involved in sharing your honest feelings outweighs the benefit of having those feelings heard.
When ‘I’m fine’ might be a problem
In an ideal world, and a healthy relationship, people will be able to address concerns as and when they arise, without leaving problems to bubble away for months beneath the surface until they appear far bigger than they really are. I am categorically not saying that ‘I’m fine’ should function as a safeword, allowing you to stonewall your partner as and when you feel like it – that would be ridiculous. In fact, if you find yourself using ‘I’m fine’ a lot, when in fact there are issues you’d like to address, there are some great resources on communication on the Relate website that you might like to have a look through, and pretty much everything on the Meg John and Justin website (and podcast) will help you learn how to articulate your feelings and needs, so check that out as well.
So I’m categorically not saying that you should always ignore an ‘I’m fine’ and never try to explore the issue further: if you find yourself using – or hearing – it a lot, you might want to try having a chat about issues that aren’t getting raised, and why it’s tricky for you or your partner to address problems that are there.
In the meantime, though, try not to take ‘I’m fine’ as carte blanche to treat a human being like a Rubik’s Cube. As Alanis Morisette recently explained, so very wisely, she has four core boundaries in her relationships:
- You can’t tell me what I’m thinking
- You can’t tell me what I’m feeling
- You can’t fucking touch my body/you can’t do anything with my body
- Don’t touch my stuff
If we casually throw around the idea that a woman saying ‘I’m fine’ is an invitation to speculate and solve the puzzle, we minimise the importance of listening to what she actually thinks and wants. We trample over two of these core boundaries: you can’t tell me what I’m thinking and you can’t tell me what I’m feeling. The more we feed into the idea that women are mysteries to be unravelled rather than human beings with complex needs and desires of our own.