Down & Out, Up & Out, Out & Out: Reading between the lines on "Fine"


A single syllable, so rich in possible meanings--does it mean fine as in “You’re right,” as in “You’re wrong,” as in “I fold,” or some complex blend of the three?

Conflict within a relationship often leads to reflection about the relationship. Saying “fine,” we step out of the conflict for a little perspective. Psychologically minded people like us value such reflection. It saddens us to note that other people resist and even fear it.

And yet their resistance and fear is understandable. When people step back to reflect, they often change altitude in the process. We move down and out toward submission (Stepping back, I see that you’re right). We move up and out toward dominance (Stepping back, I see that you’re wrong). We move out and out toward neutrality (Stepping back, I fold). Each of these can mean resolution or trouble, depending. We take space or leave in a huff; we let bygones be bygones or hold a grudge.

“You’re right” can mean a nice resolving “I stand corrected” or a troubling “You’re a bully and a tyrant so I’ll humor you.” “You’re right” can mean a nice resolving “I compromised this time, you compromise next, OK?” or a troubling “Soon, vengeance will be mine.” “I fold” can mean a nice resolving “I’m summoning my inner equanimity” or a troubling “My heart is growing icy cold to you.”

We seek intimacy with compatible partners. We dream of perfect compatibility, but at best we only get close. On incompatibilities we compromise--either on particulars or on intimacy itself. In any tiff where real compatibility isn’t an option, we give, we take, or we take space. You go to his movie, he goes to yours, or you go to separate movies.

Fine and other perspective-taking gestures naturally become mixed signals blending six meanings: win, lose, or fold, each as resolution or as future trouble.

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