Close up Hands Tea x

Sit a bit and hear some observational stories I’ve been steeping.

Sometimes a simple “Fine” just won’t do.

When someone asks “How are you?” the one, truly socially acceptable answer is, “Fine.” Oftentimes, people will ramble on about their lives, children, aches and pains, in-laws, bosses and <ahem!> intimate issues until eyes roll and I find myself wishing that heads would soon follow.  Oh, don’t think for one hot second I’m throwing rocks here, either.  I’ve watched more than my share of eye rolling from the glass house I sit in.  It is just that sometimes those three little words open a floodgate of information I never really intended to spill.  “Fine” is not always the effective cork it should be.

When life is good, and things are balanced, it actually is a pretty simple task to answer the “How are you?” question with a quick smile and a succinct, “Fine.”  Judging from the number of self-help books, DVDs, blogs and high-profile mentors out there, I’m thinking that this balanced life I speak of isn’t all that prevalent.  Therefore, “fine” isn’t always rolling trippingly off the tongue of most folks.

Clinical Psychologist Vivian Diller, PhD suggests that people stick with the Five Minute Rule when answering the “How are you?” question, especially when it comes to unsavory conversation like suffering body parts, relationship minutia and morbid issues.  She has even broken it down into age groups, such as Senior Citizens (over 85), the Civics/Greatest Generation (65-85), Baby Boomers (46-64) Gen X’ers (31-45) and Millenials/Gen Y’ers (under 30) and the topics that she feels should be off-limits like: death, aches, children, intimacy issues, jobs and relationships. 

Hmmmm.  That kind of limits your options for any kind of in-depth conversation, but I’m not the expert here.  She is.

For the most part, I really do try to live by the monosyllabic answer when people (in general) inquire about my well-being.  Mostly because we’re all in a hurry to get to our respective positions in life and there isn’t time to cover much ground, conversation-wise.  Still, on really crappy days I’ve managed to completely render a bagboy catatonic by recounting my particularly difficult morning.  Or relationship issues.  Or family dynamics gone terribly wrong.  Thank heavens for my local grocery store staff.  Cheapest take-out therapy you’re going to find, I find.

Friends and family are moving targets when it comes to finding time to chat these days, so the Five Minute Rule makes a lot of sense – get the heavy stuff out of the way, before the fluff and/or minutia get in the way of making a genuine connection.  It isn’t always easy to get face-time with close family and friends, so it is good advice to make the most of the time you have when you’re up close and personal with them.  For me, I find that my most meaningful “talks” are often via email and text only because the people I care most about are constantly en route to someplace that isn’t my sofa or dinner table.  You know, that old timey idea where once-upon-a-time people used to converse in segments larger than five minute slices.

As one who really suffers with the stopping at “Fine.” thing (and I know I’m not alone), there are times that the long-form answer to “How are you?” can be appropriate.  Not for nothing was the barkeep seen as de facto psychiatrist back in the day.  The guy/gal stood there polishing glasses, quietly taking in your stories and nodding at appropriate moments, drinking in your every word -seemingly as absorbent as the dish towel in their hands.  Also, I believe that going to the barber or hair salon is very clearly about taking care of your head – inside and out, so there’s a license to break that five minute rule.  Those people are spectacular at getting down to the brass tacks of solving life’s problems.  They might not give you the answers you need in the 30 minutes you sit in that spinning chair, but your head will be full of new stuff to consider (inside and out) when you leave.

Honestly, I’m all for Dr. Diller’s Five Minute Rule of communication and will do my best to follow it, making an effort to engage it the next time I sense an imminent eye-roll from the person I’m talking to.  However, I also hope that when it comes to talking to someone we really care about (or who cares about us) we can take the “How are you?” question a step further and ask “No, really… how ARE you?” giving permission to extend the allotted five minutes.   That is, of course, providing we have more than five minutes to give to one another.

In the meantime, I type between 80 to 90 words per minute – so be warned that the Five Minute Rule can, and will, be broken via the written word.  At least I can’t see the eye-rolling from here.

One thought on “Sometimes a simple “Fine” just won’t do.

  • ohkeeka says:

    Oh, when I was younger, I didn’t realize that “fine” was the expected answer to “How are you?” So I regularly used it as an invitation to vent about what was troubling me. I’m sure everyone thought I was such a Debbie Downer. Which, I suppose, I am.

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