Getting to the bottom of ‘fine’

Sometimes the words we say mean the opposite, and that can be a problem if ignored.

The old maxim, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is trite and patronizing. It can even be damaging in its masquerade as good advice if it prevents someone from speaking up and telling the truth when something bad is going on.

Better advice would be, “Tell the truth as tactfully as the situation requires.”

Somewhere in the middle of those two pieces of advice is where most of us often find ourselves, saying the least offensive thing we can think of while meaning something completely different.

A late-August piece in The Washington Post highlighted the overabundance of the word “fine” in our everyday work culture and how when someone responds with “fine” when you ask how work is going, it rarely, if ever, actually means that things are good.

“Fine is the most often used word when people either don’t want to lie or haven’t quite yet admitted the truth to themselves,” writes the author of the piece, Russ Finkelstein, a career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders.

“OK” is the sibling to “fine,” and to those we can add “interesting” to the list of words we use that often mean the opposite:

“What did you think of Johnson’s presentation the other day?”

“It was … interesting.”

Some commonly used phrases also have the same effect of meaning something different than what’s being said. “We should grab coffee sometime soon” often means “I have no intention of ever grabbing coffee with you.”

Asking someone to do something and then adding “thanks in advance” doesn’t mean you’re thanking them for considering doing it — it means you expect them to do it and you appreciate their prompt attention.

“With all due respect” usually means you have zero respect for the person you’re speaking to.

Many times, “I was just joking” or “I’m only being sarcastic” are signals that whatever you said is exactly how you feel.

“Do you mind?” is code for “I don’t care if you mind.” Similarly, “I don’t mind” means you often mind very much.

I could go on and on.

Now, here’s the rub. I don’t actually think that when someone says any of these things they always mean the opposite. Fine can be just that — fine.

However, fine is not always fine. That’s where we need to parse the words that people are speaking and determine if we need to dig deeper or just leave well enough alone. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially at work where the lines between professional and personal are increasingly more blurred but still recognizable as lines for most of us.

Effective leaders and compassionate co-workers need to have a degree of emotional intelligence to recognize when things are not actually fine and know how much — or little — to push their colleagues to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. Sometimes it’s as simple as just letting the person know that if anything ever is bothering them, they can come to you, no questions asked, no judgment, and you’ll be there just to listen and only to dispense advice if it’s asked for. You must back that up when the time comes, obviously, but it’s what all of us should be able to expect from the people we work with when we’re spending a third of our lives with them every day.

Some days are just fine. So are some jobs. But all employers should strive to make more of them “good.” Providing channels for professionals to give feedback on what will take their job from fine to good, or even great, needs to be something more leaders take an active role in, and helping workers get the things they need to move the needle north of fine is something all business leaders should prioritize as the competition for high-quality employees intensifies.

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