The Implications of “I’m fine”
What turns into routine might be indicative of a slightly bigger problem
On a standard week, when there’s no national holidays and I don’t have to travel, I teach 18 classes. The school that I work at in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand, has more than 1500 students spread across six grades, Prathom 1 to 6 (the equivalent of first to sixth grade in an international schooling system). I teach all six sections of Prathom 3, 4, and 5.
I’ve been hesitant to write about my students thus far because I find it difficult to believe that I can do them justice. They are children, and thus hold some of the most magnificent minds on this planet. They are eager and energetic, and expressive and inquisitive. They fearlessly grind their beloved colored pencils into paper to bring lop-sided animals and hot pink sunsets to life, and shriek with delight when they hear me say the name of their favorite food or video game. They are brave when they wrestle with each other in the freshly washed uniforms they have to wear for the rest of the year, and they are fierce when handed the responsibility of leading the school in the national anthem or collecting name tags at the end of class.
Needless to say, I love them dearly, even if they do drive me up a wall some days.
Most classes, and by most I mean almost every one, starts in the following manner. Let’s put it into a script format to make it easier to follow along:
Monday morning, a fourth grade classroom, Banthuadthong School.
APEKSHA walks into class, puts her bag down. She stands at the head of the room, arms leaning on the whiteboard or blackboard, waiting for the STUDENTS to settle down. The STUDENTS notice her and wiggle and giggle with delight. One student, STUDENT #1, frantically waves to motion to students to get into their seats. APEKSHA looks on as they settle in. STUDENTS quiet down.
STUDENT #1: Stand up, please!
The STUDENTS, on a good day, stand up in unison. Maybe one or two take a second to notice that everyone else has stood up. A couple chat in the background in hushed whispers. After a pause, the STUDENTS speak.
STUDENTS: Good morning, teacher!
APEKSHA: Good morning. How are you?
STUDENTS: I’m fine, thank you. And you?
APEKSHA: I’m also fine, thank you. Are you happy?
APEKSHA lifts the corners of her mouth to reveal an exaggerated smile.
Note, I am not an experienced screenwriter or playwright, so I apologize for any formatting issues, but I hope you got the picture.
The way the students say this is fascinating. It reminds me a lot of when I was in international schools in India and we would stand up to greet our teachers. Those interactions, however, usually ended at “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon” to the Sir/Ma’am that had entered the room. We were never asked how we were.
After a little deliberation, I’ve concluded that this was probably because we were in an English-medium school, and we didn’t need to practice our “how are you”s because it was expected that we already knew them. Instead the interaction was limited to respecting the teacher by acknowledging their presence, greeting them, and waiting for their response before being seated once again.
The phrase “I’m fine, thank you” is interesting to me.
I hear it 15–18 times a week within the classroom — and a few times outside when I asked students passing by how they are doing on a particular fine morning. I also recall hearing this phrase in a variety of other situations, most of them demanding politeness.
“Polite” is such a strange word. Here’s the Online Etymology Dictionary entry that I found for it. Side note: if you’ve never perused the Online Etymology Dictionary, you’re missing out.
“Polished” and “refined” are the first two words that stand out to me, followed by “elegant” and “cultured”. I think a lot of people, including myself, interpret politeness as more of an outward action, working more into the “behaving courteously” definition that we see above. The idea, however, that politeness is painting a favorable image of oneself, and portraying a sort of worldliness is intriguing.
It comes as no surprise, then, that a common — borderline generic — answer to a “how are you?” is “fine”.
There’s that word “reFINEd” again! I also love “free of impurities” and “perfected”.
The more contemporary perception of this word is being just a little better than okay, but not quite well. In fact, I’ve heard people use the following phrase verbatim: “I’m fine, but things have been better.”
Now, I’m not about to spend the rest of this post exploring how the definition of the English word “fine” has evolved over the past few centuries, mostly because this is how we’re taught to respond to each other in languages other than English.
In Hindi, my mother tongue, for example, you respond to “Aap kaise ho?” (“How are you?”, “you” in the formal form) usually with “Main theek houn” (I am fine). Theek, in Hindi means fine, or okay.
In Spanish, a language I had the chance to learn for five years, you are first taught to respond to “¿Como estas?” (“How are you?”, “you” in the informal form) with “Estoy bien” (“I am fine”), or sometimes just “Bien”. Good. Fine.
In Thai, the inquisitive greeting I learned was “Sabai di mai?” (literally, “Are you well?”), to which you most often respond, “Sabai di ka/krap” (“I am well”).
I have, of course, learned other ways of responding to this question, but I can confidently say that the first way I was taught to respond was the same in every language I’ve learned.
When you’re learning a language, one of the most useful things to start out with is mimicking what native speakers say to one another on a day-to-day basis. In other words, we learn to say “I’m fine, thank you” because that’s what native speakers do. We don’t learn much beyond that, because more often than not, conversations stop there. It’s almost more important to respond with something than to be honest. It’s almost impolite to receive an innocent question and throw back something beyond what’s expected.
Think of the last person you walked by and said “Hey! What’s up?” to, before continuing on your way. Did you find out what was up, or did you pepper some politeness on the tail-end of your greeting?
Why do we do that?
At this point, the whole transactional nature of the “What’s Up”/“Not Much” and “How are you?”/“I’m fine” conversations is pretty deeply embedded into our culture. It is, in fact, from a modern standard, polite to inquire about someone’s wellbeing, but it’s become too easy to stop right there. I say this from both the standpoint of the one asking and the the one answering.
Humility, politeness, and grace are qualities that we’d all like to have, which explains the reflexive “I’m fine”s that we throw out every day. We divert back to the safest, plainest, most standard answer to blanket out the intricacies of what might be bothering us. We use these two words to assure others that we don’t need to be tended-to and that whatever is going on is manageable.
In passing, I understand, sometimes there’s just not enough time to have a good conversation. Fine. In more professional settings, though, it’s so common to see individuals throw an “I’m fine” or “I’m well”, and absolve the other individual of the responsibility of hearing what their question beckons. It’s as if the only way someone gets to hear the truth is if you know them. Until then, all they get is the standard response. At the same time you can ask anyone and everyone how they are, regardless of whether you know them at all.
The way we speak reflects a lot about how relationships develop in society. It highlights what is acceptable to present to others, and what is appropriate to wear on one’s sleeve. I am perpetually bewildered by the verbal efforts we make to swallow up our feelings so that we appear to be less of a burden to others. The notion of bearing an emotional issue, even for the purpose of asking for space, is somehow disagreeable, flawed, and impolite, to the extent that it manifests in how we greet one another.
I’m not sure if it’s practical to invest time everyday inviting dozens of people into the aspects of your life that are affecting your performance, but I have always seen value in expressing nuance and variation to present an authentic sense of self.
A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that I have the privilege of being a figure of authority in my classrooms, and thus know that whatever I say will not be held against me (at least to my face). I walked into one of my third grade classes, exhausted from an important phone call from the night before, and stood before them as they stood up to greet me. When they threw their “I’m fine. And you?” at me, I smiled weakly and stopped myself.
“I’m a little bit tired” I said, showing my eyelids drooping and my shoulders slouched over. I leaned to one side and shrugged. When I stood back up I looked at my clearly sleepy third graders. “Are you a little bit tired?” I asked.
They looked at each other in near panic, like I had set a trap. One of them giggled.
I repeated myself, smiling harder. “Teacher is a little bit tired. Are you?”
One student locked eyes with me and widened them. I nodded my head and lifted my eyebrows to prompt a response and she nodded very subtly. I smiled back at her and threw a thumbs up, “Me too!”
More and more often, I’ve been telling students when I’m full and sluggish after lunch and excited for the weekend on Fridays. The other day, when I’d heard some bad news from home, I told students that I was just okay, but tired. When my throat hurts, I tell them. When I feel really good, I tell them. I’m realizing now that I’ve been more honest with my students than I have with most people I talk to on a daily basis. It’s oddly refreshing, even though they seldom ask me why I’m tired or when I go to bed on the average night.
One reason I’m trying to speak about my state of being with more nuance in the classroom, is because I’m trying to empower my own students to be candid with me. Our language barrier makes talking through more complicated things difficult, but I’ve already seen one or two students become more inclined to ask me for help when they’re stuck, or to ask me to move out of the way when they can’t see the board. The lack of the robotic “I’m fine” is turning me into a human, and my students seem to be responding to me with their own human selves.
I’m not sure that I’ll be able to carry my candidness with me into the impersonal conversations I have with future people, but I am frustrated enough with the monotony of “I’m fine” to want to try. It feels healthier, like switching out a sports bra for something looser.
Sometimes the opposite of being fine is a lot more complicated than being tired. Sometimes it’s being scared, helpless, anxious, or alone. The damage of shrinking oneself for the fleeting benefit of another individual, sometimes isn’t worth it, and if someone is asking you about how you are, you are entitled to tell them the truth. To quote some of the members of the previous Fulbright Thailand ETA cohort, “advocate for yourself.” After all, what’s overly upfront about an “I’m a little tired, but I’m going to get some coffee” or an “I had a rough morning and just need a second to settle down”? You are worth taking care of and I promise you, you’re not the only one who isn’t “fine” today.
On the other hand, maybe you are fine. Maybe you’re polished today, and you feel stronger than you ever have before. Perhaps that new toothpaste you bought last week is really working wonders for you, and you got all your work done before a reasonable hour last night. In that case, fantastic. I’m rooting for you, and wish you many more fine days to come. As a bonus, I wish you one more thing: the courage to say something other than “I’m fine” when you know you need to talk through something.
This blog, medium.com/@aatal, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Apeksha Atal and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations