According to new research the average adult will say ‘I’m fine’ 14 times a week, though really just 19 per cent mean it. Makes sense really, when you consider how many disparate meanings “I’m fine” actually connotes. You can be fine as in you’re feeling fine, comme ci comme ça, bene, sound. You can be fine as in your neither here nor there, mediocre, average. Or you can be fine as in you’re not fine but you don’t want to bother anybody, so you lie to cover your true feelings.
Polysemy is a word that better describes the human condition than any of the other 171,476 words in the dictionary. It describes the capacity for a sign (such as a word, phrase, or symbol) to have multiple meanings, and above the elementary examples – wood is a piece of wood as well as a geographical area with many trees, Crane is a bird, a type of construction equipment and also means to strain out one’s neck – it truly encapsulates how we talk about how we feel.
Think about how you respond yourself when someone asks “how are you feeling?”. It is rare that we ever respond with more than a couple of words. As I wrote in my last Mantality column, we are almost culturally opposed to the idea of talking about how we feel, particularly when we’re sad. We’d much rather reply with a cover up than have to appear vulnerable, so we stick to “I’m fine”, “not too bad”, “getting on” and the rest – a sort of broken record of masked misery.
And that, particularly as far as blokes are concerned, creates a big problem. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that we can’t share our problems. As Owen Jones wrote in this Guardian piece, speaking out, removing the stigma from mental health and challenging unreconstructed masculinity are the big barriers we have to overcome in order to reduce the number of men taking their own life.
Which is why The Mental Health Foundation has launched the ‘I’m Fine’ campaign to encourage Brits to open up about mental health and ‘bring back meaning’ to daily conversations. Jenny Edwards, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said that when it comes to discussing our feelings many of us are just “sticking to a script”.
“On the surface, we’re routinely checking in with each other but beneath that, many of us feel unable to say how we’re really feeling.”
One of the key obstacles to overcome on the “I’m Fine” debate is to challenge people to listen as well as speak out. The Mental Health Foundation study found 44 per cent of those surveyed said that they have regretted asking somebody how they were doing after receiving an answer they weren’t prepared for, which could well be the root of the problem.
I know from personal experience that I would never wish to bother someone with my personal strife and will more often than not opt for the more convenient option of the two or three word answers to appease these archaic social norms that seem to be governing our society. It may also be a regional thing. Where I’m from every man and his dog will ask how you are, but speaking about your feelings, conversely, has real stigma attached to it.
If I was asked half as much about how I felt but from people who genuinely cared I suspect my mental wellbeing might be better off in the long-run. It may be impossible to test out in practice, but certainly provides food for thought.