What does ‘I’m fine’ really mean?

As the brilliant Doctor House frequently reminds us, “Everybody lies.” Whether it’s something as minimal as a fib or something on a larger scale, it is a relatively well-accepted truth.

However, the biggest lie of all is something tossed off every day as a knee-jerk reaction: When someone asks you how you are doing, the most common answer is usually, “I’m fine.”

I work in the hospitality industry, so one of my duties is to greet guests with a cheerful smile. The ever-present question following the smile is asking them, “And how are you doing today?” But when that question is turned back on me, the smile remains fixed in place, and no matter how worn out or exhausted I am, I always have a positive answer.

Why? For the same reason everyone else says “I’m fine.” People don’t want to hear about each other’s problems. Hell, we all have our own issues. So how are we expected to open up just a tiny bit and be a shoulder to lean on for another human being?

In general, we are all so wrapped up in our little bubbles, longing for understanding, affection, or our place in this world, that we’re terrified of letting someone penetrate the mask we have created, the perfect porcelain façade that hides true emotions from the public.

Just as bad is the person who accepts that bland lie and moves on. Of course it’s no big deal. It’s merely following social convention. What is the purpose behind the acceptance of them?

As Joshua Freedman, a leading expert on applying emotional intelligence, states in his article, it’s really a mutual deception that occurs for three main reasons.

Safety: It’s “normal” which means it’s comfortable.

Speed: It’s quick and easy which means we don’t need to get caught up in actually caring.

Script: We all know we’re “supposed to” stay on the surface, so we do.

Of course, that’s not to say that everyone needs and intimate knowledge of your emotions and feelings, but there are ways that you can learn to open up or help someone else open up.

If it’s a close friend of yours, you can most likely tell when something is amiss, but even with acquaintances, sometimes it’s actually easier to open up to a person you’re not as close to.

However, realize that if there is opening up that needs to be done, it cannot be done in a rushed public setting. Time needs to be taken, concern showed and support offered.

Building a trusting relationship and foundation is important. The deeper the issue, the deeper the relationship. Allow for enough time for discussion and be honest and open with them.

Your reactions should never be pre-determined or pre-planned. Carefully listen to their entire conversation and give them feedback. No one likes a brick wall.

Nothing should be one-sided — a give and take is key to any healthy discourse. The person should be open and willing to hear what you have to say as well.

To work on your own ability to open up, Joshua Freedman suggests as one of his methods, thinking of a situation that you went through that you felt differently than what you said.

On one half of your paper, make a sketch or symbol of what you were showing on the outside. On the other half, represent what you were feeling on the inside. Then examine how you would bring the two closer together.

Delve deeper into your own emotions and those of others. Don’t suffice yourself with a simple answer that is not the truth. Take the time to put in effort and show compassion.