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It’s Fine (and other misunderstandings that fuel conflict)

Misunderstandings and assumptions about what another person means, or what the word they use means, can really fuel conflicts. I’ve written a lot about this in terms of intercultural miscommunications and bias, but it can happen when there are no obvious cultural differences as well.

It’s fine.

A very good example of this for me is the word “fine”, and what it means to my wife and to me.

It seems like such a simple word, but my wife and I have had a number of frustrating interchanges and downright disagreements that started with this word.

When I ask my wife a direct question such as,

“Do you want to have broccoli with dinner?”, she often answers, “it’s fine.”

And she means, “That is a quite acceptable alternative.”

But in my family, when someone said “it’s fine.” What they really meant was,

“That isn’t at all what I want. But I don’t want to make a fuss openly, so I will be passive aggressive and say its okay and feel aggrieved and make sure you know I’m not happy.”

So my unfiltered response to my wife saying “it’s fine,” is to panic and fret and present alternatives.

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t have to make broccoli.”

“I could make green beans instead.”

“Or would you rather have carrot sticks?”

She gets frustrated and exasperated with me, and I get frantic, sure I’ve made the wrong choice and will hear subtle or not so subtle digs about it for a long time.

Remembering to translate.

We’ve been together over thirty-two years, and I have finally learned to remember to translate from my family’s dysfunctional “fine” to her straightforward one. We don’t have that useless argument any more.

If you and someone else at work or at home are having any miscommunications like this, one additional strategy is to see if different interpretations of a crucial word are creating unnecessary problems. Are you sure you mean the same thing? You can be curious and ask them!

By the way I once saw a very amusing demonstration of how people deflect with ” fine” on a retrospective of Gray’s Anatomy. Someone put together a series of clips from a number of different episodes, in which various characters say “I’m fine” or It’s fine”, when clearly they are upset and not fine at all.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE

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