School memories are a triumphant illustration of the laws of quantum physics: they manage to be completely unreliable yet completely indelible at precisely the same time. Do you remember at school being told not to use the word ‘nice’? Do you remember that of course it then became the first word that would pop into your head when asked to write something?
(The NLP folk would tell us that this shows the stunning effectiveness of cementing something into one’s mind by instructing the opposite . Don’t fall! …. Crash.)
‘Nice’ has a partner in crime who takes over when we are grown up.
The word is ‘fine’.
But there’s is no-one to help us not to use it – or rather, not to ‘wield’ it. I think it’s a weapon, and a clever one. I heard it wielded expertly at the table next to me in the café yesterday.
A young marketing team was working on some copy. The mood seemed to be a little listless and shrug-y. But after a plausible amount of effort the work was finished. ‘Yeah, its fine’ pronounced the leader. Yet everyone looked uncomfortable.
There was something in how ‘fine’ had been delivered…
‘Fine’ is old, and while its meaning may not have morphed wildly, its function clearly has.
Quality was part of the original French meaning in the 12th/13th centuries. ‘Unblemished’ or ‘refined’ or ‘pure’ was part of its power. And we use ‘fine’ now to indicate delicacy, and beautiful work. It suggests skill, a level of craft. It has stretched to ‘fine print’ in the sense of detail, or precision.
So how is it that this little word has come to function so powerfully, to do such sarcastic damage to healthy connection and conversation?
Imagine possible answers, for example, to the question ‘How are you?’.
I would suggest that ‘Great, thanks’ suggests that something good has happened, some good news, that there may or may not be a chance to get to hear about. I would suggest that ‘good’ suggests that whatever the facts of the matter, there’s no need to talk any more about it. It does what OK used to do. I would suggest that ‘not so good’, amazingly, probably means.. not so good.
But ‘Fine’? Wow.
I would suggest that however it is delivered it is saying that something is not good, is not OK, is not right. Is absolutely not fine.
But the delivery will then indicate either that the speaker considers the subject completely off limits, or … and this is where I do worry about the men in white coats….that the questioner is the cause of the thing that has gone wrong.
This is what I heard happening in the café. This is what I hear in teams that are not working well with each other.
So to go back to quantum physics and NLP in one glorious movement…
We have here a word that means different things simultaneously – is alive and dead at the same time if you will – and causes terrible communication problems. Yet thinking to oneself ‘don’t use it’ will make the opposite happen.
My top tip for improving communication this week is – pause for Machiavellian mastermind laughter – to try to use the word ‘fine’ as often as possible. Perversely, we might then be able to exterminate it once and for all.
Fine with that?