I think it’s pretty safe to say that most of us know when you ask someone how they’re doing and they say they’re “fine”, that’s code for they’re not fine. Yet we still don’t follow up on that. So why do we say “I’m Fine” when we’re not actually fine, and why do we ignore this well known unwritten code when we hear someone else reply with it?
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There are a number of reasons why we might claim we’re “fine” when we’re not, and there are probably numerous reasons as to why these replies are overlooked or ignored. A lot of the latter might even be explained in my article: What To Do When Your Cries For Help Are Ignored.
The Mental Health Foundation commissioned a study on 2000 people and found that an adult will say “I’m fine” 14 times a week, but only 19% will actually mean it.
According to the study funded by Mental Health Foundation, 34% of people use the term “I’m fine” because it’s easier than explaining how they really are, and I get that, I really do. I have my own variation on replying to questions on how I am by saying “I’m alive” rather than “I’m fine”. I do this because its humourous, knocks people slightly off guard, and avoids me having to lie to someone about how I’m actually doing.
Here are a couple of examples of me doing just that on Twitter:
I'm still alive, so I can't be doing that bad— Unwanted Life (@UnwantedLife_Me) May 25, 2019
I'm still alive, how are you?— Unwanted Life (@UnwantedLife_Me) March 8, 2019
The obvious reasons we use the generic “I’m fine” reply when we’re asked how we are is probably a combination of several factors: politeness, awkwardness, fear of being a burden, and not wanting to be seen as struggling. The situation/context around where and when you’re asked could also be a factor.
Politeness and awkwardness is probably a common reason for a lot of British people, that’s for sure. After all, we say sorry for everything, even for stuff that wasn’t our fault.
As I said, I say it to avoid lying to people so I’m not claiming to be “fine” when I’m not, but I also can’t be doing with the hassle of explaining my complex issues to someone else either. If I’m not looking for help to find a solution, then I don’t see the point of wasting both our times on a pointless conversation. That’s a pretty bad way to look at life, isn’t it?
But like I said, context is also important. Say I was working for an addiction service as a counsellor, and I was having a session with a client and they asked me how I was, I wouldn’t be honest if I was having a hard time, nor would I use my usual phrase of “I’m still alive”, I’d lie and tell them I’m doing good.
However, the problem is, how are we going to get men to talk about their problems more or reduce the stigma of struggling (with or without a mental illness being a factor) if we can’t even talk to people more openly about how we really are?
The Unwritten Code
The commissioned study by the Mental Health Foundation also found that 59% of us expect to hear a lie when we ask someone, “how are you doing?”. Although this gets weird if you’re British, often we say stuff like, “you alright?” as a greeting rather than an actual question, and thus we don’t expect an answer, but rather a similar rhetorical question as a greeting in reply. I know, we Brits are weird.
Anyway, back to the point. If we’re expecting to be lied to when we ask someone how they are, then why do we ask, and why don’t we care about how they’re really feeling? Well, the Mental Health Foundation funded study had an answer for that too. Apparently, 44% of those that took part in the study regretted asking how someone was doing if they got a reply they weren’t prepared for. This would probably explain why we Brits have evolved to ask “you alright?” and know not to expect an answer.
However, that doesn’t stop 23% of people who took part in the Mental Health Foundation study from thinking the person asking how they were wasn’t really interested in knowing the real answer. This is kind of depressing to hear, but probably is what a lot of us think, especially those of us with depression, like me.
I don’t think I fit into that 23% myself, as I will share how I’m feeling if I feel it’s relevant in some way, regardless of if they’re really interested or not. However, I’m probably guilty of ignoring the unwritten code of “I’m fine” in my personal life, mainly due to being in the wrong frame of mind to handle someone else’s problems in my personal time when I’m struggling myself. Sometimes you have to put your own mental wellbeing first.
From time to time, I’ll follow up on the “I’m fine” reply, even if I’m struggling myself, but that tends to depend on how badly I think they’re really struggling (if it’s a cry for help situation or not). I’ve burnt myself out trying to help others before, due to my problems with people-pleasing, I never put my needs first, and I paid the price for that many times (The Dangers Of People-Pleasing).
Context and adherence to the code are probably important when asking how someone is, and if you’re asking in passing, you might not want to hear anything except some variation of “I’m fine” because you’re not really asking. But if you’re actually meeting up for a chat or something like that, then maybe they’d expect and want a more honest answer.
I think it’s time we all started to be a little more honest when we’re asked how we are if the situation/context allows for it. We shouldn’t be ashamed to share how we really are, and it’s ok to be struggling, as we’re all struggling. Life is a struggle.
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Unwanted Life readers.
82 thoughts on “Why Do I Say “I’m Fine” When Actually I’m Not?”
Many a time I’ve replied, “I’m fine, ” when I wasn’t.
We all do it
This is so true…..
I always prefer to say “I’m fine” because we will never know who is praying for us and who is playing with us….
Telling “I’m fine” prevents additional unwanted dialogues….
Thank you for sharing this post ?
JENISH | https://knowafactfromj.blogspot.com
It certainly is an easy way to avoid a longer conversation
I always said “I’m fine” to those who are strangers to me. I also said “I’m fine” to those who I believe won’t understand me at all. I will only tell the truth to close friends.
Are you always honest with you close friends when they ask how you’re doing?
I find I often say I’m Fine to those who are not that close to me (work mates). I’m much less likely to just say I’m fine to those in my family.
How less likely?
I say “I’m fine” all the time. I never really thought about why I say it. You’ve definitely got me thinking about it though. Thank you for sharing your insights.
It’s certainly something worth thinking about if we’re going to destigmatize talking about our issues
I say I’m fine a lot more then I should. I will even say it to people I know care about me. I just don’t want to bother people with my problems. I have always been the strong friend. I’m learning it’s not safe.
I’m much the same way myself
Such an important post, I too often reply with I’m fine when I’m not, mostly due to either not feeling comfortable taking about things with said person or I just don’t want to bother other people with my problems! I think it’s something we all need to change, mental health is so important and you easily end up feeling alone in times of need all because we are not willing to share our thoughts! Thanks for sharing!
I couldn’t have said it better myself
I am definitely one of those people who say “I’m fine” when I’m not and in the rare occasion I am honest about how I feel, I mask it with humor. It’s sad because in my blogs I am completely raw and vulnerable but in person, I like to portray that I am conquering life, when in reality, that is far from the case. I guess I feel like I will burden a person if I am honest about how I feel because it is so heavy sometimes. But when it comes to others and how they feel, I am very aware of their body language, facial expressions, and tone. Based on those factors, I probe deeper to see if they are willing to confide in me.
Great read! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing too
I’m trying out a new total honesty thing. Rather than saying “I’m fine” I’d rather say, “I’m content” or “Honestly, kind of not great, but still smiling.” It’s best not to lie to ourselves or others about how we are actually feeling.
I’m not a fan of lying like that either. I hope your new approach works out for you
Most times I reply with the code I’m fine due to many reasons but to mention a few important ones that stand out to me are that I’m mostly with the intention of speaking what I’m not feeling or what I want to see or happen in my life to life. The other reason is me being too guarded because not all of us are with good intentions to helping but some find the joy through the struggle of others. But I love what you highlighted which is the matter of honesty, I should really try to be honest about my feelings without caring who thinks what about them as long as I’m in liberty of letting it all out. I always try to press them down and then things get out of hand in most times. Thank you for sharing this eye opening matter.
I think we all need to be more honest about how we’re feeling when asked, but at the same time, if we don’t want an honest answer to how someone is doing, then maybe we should stop asking it unless we do want an honest answer
Thank you for sharing, I have often said i am fine when I’m not.
I’d be surprised if even one person had never done that at least once
This article is spot on. I can’t even count how many times I’ve done this. And I know many others do it as well. Thanks for sharing.
I’d put money on it that 99.9% of people do it as well
I never thought of it this way but I definitely tend to say ‘I’m fine’ when im not okay because when I’m good, I say good or alright. This article is an eye opener definitely! Great one!
xoxo Olivia | http://www.oliviaandbeauty.com
Let me preface this response with saying that I am TOTALLY guilty of saying that I’m fine when I’m not more often than I would care to admit… That being said, I believe that the pressure to answer in this way ranks up there with the stigma that keeps people from seeking help for mental health concerns. We believe that we have to be fine or that we are somehow weak. I would love to see that lifted and normalize admitting if you’re struggling or having a rough day.
That would certainly be the ideal
I think it’s very much part of British culture to say you’re fine when you’re not – it’s all part of that unhealthy ‘stiff upper lip’ persona.
Personally, I tend to say I’m fine when I’m not when I’m not fully ready to address what’s upsetting me or if I’m in a environment I don’t feel comfortable crying in i.e. the workplace.
It’s certainly harder to be honest when asked how you are if you’re at work. Also, the British stiff upper lip thing is what’s leading so many British men to suicide
First off, loving the new site look! Very clean and it complements the writing.
Second, I love that you have gone into this topic in depth! I often feel like I am lying to myself and manifesting the wrong thing when I say “I am fine” when I am not, so I have found other ways to tell the real truth without lying to myself or others. Many people find it strange when I say “I am okay” or “I am not fine” but I find it is important to be truthful and help spread some awareness that not being fine but making it through it is what is okay.
Thanks so much for sharing!
Thank you, you the first one to comment on the changes I’ve made ?
It certainly is important to be honest like that, otherwise people will keep hiding their struggles because they’re too busy pretending to be ok
I like the use of the voting buttons within the post which helps us to examine our behaviour when asked how we are doing. Asking how someone is doing and stating that we are well or fine just seems to be automatic in British culture probably as pleasantries/ not wishing to complain. In other cultures where there may be negative responses encouraged then people will honestly state how they are and complain if they wish!
I’m glad you liked the voting options ?
In the U.S., “how are you doing” and “I’m fine” is much the same as in the UK. The question generally isn’t meant to gain info and the response usually isn’t meant to provide info. And I don’t think it;s because people don’t want to complain. I think it’s because they consider that exchange as a generic greeting, just like hello. I couldn’t imagine providing details good or bad about how I’m doing to every person who asks in a day’s time. But I do make an effort not to ask this question of strangers. I also, like you, make an effort to respond with something other than “I’m fine” when asked to catch people off guard and make them realize they asked a question but didn’t really want the answer.
It totally is just meant to be a greeting now, but I wonder how that came about? Surely there’s better greetings that don’t require asking a question that you don’t expect an honest answer to
I love this post! It honestly opened my mindset and I think I’m going to try and be more honest when I answer this question as opposed to just throwing around “I’m fine” when most of the time I’m really not. I usually use it just to deflect, or to avoid talking at the time, but that really just sends the message that I’m ok and sometimes I’m really not.
It’s understandable to want to deflect, I think that’s why we all do it, but if we’re going to grow as a society and become more supportive of people in need, we all need to start being honest about how we are
Mental Health is so underestimated. This is such an informative and important post. I say I’m fine all the time to the ones I don’t want to discuss anything but that’s the thing I need to learn.
I can totally relate. I am fully guilty of saying I’m ok even when I’m not. You are so right.
It’s easily done
Mental health really is underestimated
Yup, I say “I’m fine” far too often, without even giving it a second thought. It’s common like “have a nice day” or “see you later”, just something to be said but not really conveying any meaning or truth.
Indeed it is
Oooh, you’ve opened up a can of worms with this one! I, too, am 100% guilty of saying, “I’m fine,” when I am anything but. For me, I am an INFJ and with us, we are much better at helping others than addressing our own needs in this way. When someone says to me, “I’m fine,” but my intuition says they’re anything but — I want to actually hear how this person is doing. My heart aches for what they’re going through and I hope to help in some way. Oddly, even though I want to help everyone else, I’m not very trusting with 99.99% of people. Which means I only tell someone how I feel if we have a proven track record of trust.
Your post is extremely helpful, and I appreciate you for sharing. Empathy needs to make a comeback in our cultures. Everyone has gotten so busy, and often so self-involved, that there’s a true lack of care for other people. Narcissism is running rampant all over the place. ?
Your point about getting men to talk about what they’re feeling is also very important. In the same way women have had a certain ‘ideal’ shoved down their throats (which is all a bunch of marketing BS!), so have men. Men are supposed to be “strong.” Since when did strength get equated with stuffing feelings down? We are human. We have good days, bad days, and lots of in between. No matter our gender or our status in life, emotions are healthy. They tell us a lot about where we are in life and what issues we might need to address.
Thank you for this helpful post. I think lots of people will come and learn more about themselves and why they shouldn’t join the majority of uninterested in the needs of others, people.
I don’t know how or when strength got equated with not expressing your emotions, but I’d really be interested to know how the history of how that happened
We need to encourage using more words for when responding to “how are you” then “fine” or “fine thanks”
There is so much important content in this post. I think everyone at some point or another has lied about being okay when they’re not, and it’s so sad that so many people are afraid that those asking them don’t actually care for the true answer. Thanks for sharing
Indeed it is sad that we feel that way
The fear of being judged plays a significant role when people say, ‘I am fine’ when they are not. Many times I find myself replying with a short ‘good’ even if something is not right inside there. Glad you have brought this topic up.
True, it’s a shame the world can still be so judgemental
I’ve done this more times than I count.
Honestly I think I’m just uncomfortable with the thought of having someone talk about my issues with me, but honestly talking about things is so great to get it off your back.
I guess it’ll be uncomfortable until it becomes the social norm
This is a really thoughtful post! I’ve often found myself consoling friends who responded to the “how are you” question honestly only to receive not-so-great responses. As a society, we’ve established that we have to ask “how are you” even when we don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to help the person if the answer isn’t positive. I think it’s entirely rooted in society and expectations. I’m someone who says “I’m fine” way too much as well, even if it is with friends who ask out of concern. I usually follow up with elaboration but that is the first response because its become a habit. I should count how many times I say it in a week haha.
It certainly has become a troublesome societal norm. It’s good to ask how people are but only when you’re ready for a potentially negative honest reply
I say I’m fine when I want to take things easy… This makes me calm and also I use this expression when I feel that it isn’t the right person to tell my problem. Great post btw!
It certainly can be easier to just say your fine when you’re not a lot of the time
This is spot on! I only say something when I know they can help me but to be honest, sometimes talking to my mom or dad about it is good even if I know they won’t help or understand me.
Sometimes it can be good just to vent
I am so guilty of saying, “I’m fine” when I’m totally not. And honestly, it is to avoid any awkwardness also I’m not one to open up about my own problems to others.
Not many people are good at opening up, and as a society we need to change that
Very interesting read. I’ve been guilty of this a few times myself in the past when I was suffering
Aren’t we all
Nice post, I am fine is so commonly used expression when someone asks about us but deep within we don’t mean it most of the times. You have highlighted the reasons and aspects clearly, thanks.
Deepti | https://perspectiveofdeepti.blogspot.com/
It certainly seems that way
I try to say, I’m okay, instead of I’m fine. Even that doesn’t convey the truth. I depends on who I am talking to as to my response. Some who ask don’t really want to know or don’t have the time to listen…then others do.
We should change the social conversation so we only ask how someone if we actually want to know the truth
? such good and relatable post
Very interesting article. I often find myself saying I’m fine even though I have a chronic illness. I guess I just figure things can always be worse and I’m grateful for what I have. Plus, as noted, many people don’t expect the honest (longwinded) actual answer