Read an Excerpt
Fine with Me by Melinda Rainey Thompson
Southern women do not always say exactly what they mean. We're not hard to translateunless you're not from around here. It's a cultural thing. In truth, it helps to be a native speaker no matter where you live. The local patois is always a little different. It takes years of living in the South, marinating in the heat and the humidity, to appreciate all the nuances of our language. Most importantly, you have to consider context. While this is true for the rest of the country, too, I like to think of us down here as a little bit special. I mean that in the unique, delightful, charming way rather than the Special Olympics, mentally challenged definition.
The words being uttered are often less important than the people involved or the timing of the remarks. For example, if a couple in the South has a mixed marriage, an Alabama fan and an Auburn fan living under the same roof, then Iron Bowl week can get dicey. One spouse might scream at the other, "I want a divorce!" I wouldn't pay nearly as much attention to that comment during Iron Bowl week as I would during any other time of the year. I understand that these things happen. Divorce demands arising from stressful football weeks in the Southeastern Conference seem, to me, to be an entirely understandable and even predictable turn of events.
We have all said things in the heat of the moment that we don't really mean and would not dream of saying on any other day. Although I do not remember this myself, my husband claims that I told him and a labor-and-delivery nurse to shut up during one of my children's births. That is pretty strong language.Saying "shut up" to another human being in this house costs you five dollars, the equivalent of a large caffe latte. I remember thinking those words in my head, but I don't remember saying them out loud. I can't say for sure that I didn't let a "shut up" slip out. Childbirth is one of those stressful circumstances I was talking about.
I've found that it pays to wait until the dust settles, the campaign ends, the football season is over, or the baby goes to college to address some issues. I take into account extenuating circumstanceslike in-laws camped out in the guest room, the challenges of a new weight-loss diet, or recent changes in medicationbefore I take to heart any offending comments from someone I love. Lord knows, I certainly hope that people who love me take into account recent "take to my bed with a cold cloth on my forehead" provocations in my own life before judging any hasty words that have flown out of my mouth without a filtering review by my brain.
One word that is found in every Southern woman's lexicon strikes me as particularly in need of cultural translation: the F-word. No need to panic. This essay is G-rated. I have a good vocabulary and Internet access to every dictionary on the planet. I don't need to stoop that low for entertainment. As the mother of teenage boys, if I want humor on the scale of bathroom jokes, I can fill up my cup on the home front.
At first glance, the word fine seems pretty innocuous. Nevertheless, I believe that there is not a more loaded word in a Southern woman's vocabulary. I promise you that the more you think about this word, the more meanings you will divine. If this word appeared in a Southerner's dictionary, the definitions would spill onto two pages and require full-color illustrations.
At first glance, fine can mean anything. It all depends on your tone of voice. It can mean something straightforward, such as a response to a question regarding someone's physical or mental well-being. One might ask, for example, "Are you okay?" A response of, "Fine! I survived the fall from the balcony!" is easy to translate. This definition for fine is just the first round of rush parties, however. There are days and days of parties to get through before you select a fine that is the perfect match.
Think about this: The first question we all ask someone who has sustained an injury is, "Are you okay?" This frequently causes irritation because, by definition, the person who has just banged his or her head on the car door, fallen off the edge of the roof, or been struck by a rattlesnake is clearly anything but fine. In fact, every accident victim is the exact opposite of fine.
This Q-and-A interchange is a cultural reflex. The "Are you okay?" query is actually a plea for reassurance that the injured party is still breathing. We figure if the injured party can articulate a polite response, it can't be all that bad. It sounds more polite to ask, "Are you okay?" rather than "Are you maimed for life?" or "Are your brains splattered on the sidewalk?" or "I guess that's the last time you'll poke a snake with a stick; isn't it?"
Down here, the only socially acceptable answer to "Are you okay?" is "I'm fine." You can see how important tone becomes with this word. You can say "fine" in a sarcastic, ticked-off, "Why are you asking me such a stupid question?" way, or you can reply "fine" in a breathy, "I'm just about to breathe my last breath on earth; come close and I'll tell you where I hid the money" way. It depends.
It is possible to use the word fine to actually reassure others, as in, "I'm fine in the assisted-living facility. I play bridge on Thursdays; the food here is fabulous, and they have fresh flowers and linen tablecloths in the dining room. I should have moved in here years ago. I have no idea why I waited until I broke my hip to get in on this deal." In this context, the meaning is clearly reassuring. Conversely, you can use the word fine to make your loved ones feel as guilty as if they have drowned a basketful of kittensas in, "I'm fine here in this nursing home. I could die tomorrow, and no one would know for two weeks until I started to smell up the place." See how this works?
You often hear the word fine shouted in angry tones: "That is perfectly fine with me!" The quick translation, down and dirty, for this is: "I don't care if I ever see you or speak to you again as long as I live!" You've probably used this application of the word yourself. It's a classic. My guess is that this is actually the most common use of the F-word.
Sometimes, the word fine really means fine, and you shouldn't read anything oxymoronic into it at all. It can be an automatic response to a general greeting in the South. One might ask, "Hey! How're you doing?" The answer, as any Southerner over the age of five can tell you, is "Fine, thanks. How are you?" This can go back and forth for a while. It's compulsory, really, a knee-jerk, polite greeting, ingrained from an early age as a sign of good manners. You should know that this fine does not necessarily reflect reality in any literal way. It would not shock me to hear a conversation like this:
"Hey, how's your family?"
"Oh, we're all fine. Mama was sick for a while, but she's perking up. How're y'all?"
"We're fine, too, thanks."
The last line could easily be followed, mere seconds later, by, "I think that is the tornado siren. If we don't get down in the basement, I think we're going to be on the five o'clock news."
Even a seemingly transparent use of the word fine can be misleading. Picture this scene in your mind: A doctor goes in to an exam room to treat a Southern woman with the flu. She is throwing up in the trash can usually reserved for wadded-up paper gowns. This woman fears she may expire at any moment. Considering how ill she feels, she thinks death may not be such a bad idea.
The doctor asks, in his or her best bedside-manner voice, "So, how're you, Ms. ?"
Before she even lifts her head from the trash can to answer that stupid question in colorful detail, she'll sayyou guessed it, I'm sure"I'm fine."
Don't worry. She'll get to the "fine, but . . ." part pretty fast.
It wouldn't surprise me a bit to hear paramedics going through the traditional meet-and-greet ritual with a victim they are trying to free from the twisted wreck of a car with the Jaws of Life. The word fine has elaborate, complex, multilayered, and strangely fascinating meanings in our culture. It would make an interesting doctoral dissertation. I'd read it. On second thought, I think I could write it. I've spent a lifetime researching the topic.
Decoding Southern Women by Morgan Murphy
If you understood Melinda's essay on the language of Southern femininity, your X chromosomes are in place. As a man, there exist some nuances of life that I have resigned myself to missing: (a) childbirth, (b) setting a table properly, and (c) grasping what Southern women mean when they talk to me.
Sure, I comprehend the words that Southern women utter. I'm just never quite sure I have a command of what they mean. Exhibit A: it took Melinda four pages to explain one word, fine, and the next time she employs that word in my company, I will mentally rewind her exhaustive explanation of fine, mulling over the myriad different potential meanings, and try to parse exactly which definition is the one that she actually means.
Men, you know my likelihood of success: probably zero.
Not that I haven't made an earnest effort to understand women, mind you. I have three sisters. Four of my bosses were women. Many of my friends are women. I listen. I study. I struggle to understand.
This isn't to say that Southern men aren't derogatory, insulting, and sarcastic at times. Difference is, most of the time you know if you're the subject of a man's ire. A Southern man's insults hit you like a Greyhound bus. Wham! You're obliterated. A Southern woman's insults are like seeing a shooting star, "Hey, was that a shooting star over there? I think it was." You're never quite certain you've been insulted, and you need someone else to verify what you heard.
Oh, my good man, you think you understand Southern women? That you're the male exception? You're that blind pig that finds an acorn every now and then? Okay, here's a test: when your wife/mother/girlfriend/sister says, "I'm fine, really," after an argument, what does she mean?
Perhaps a lightbulb went off in your head and you thought, "She's not fine; she's furious."
Good job. You've passed one-hundredth of the test. You've glimpsed into the enigma machine and parsed a nuance. Now what? What are you going to do with that information? The woman is angry with you; now you know that she is angry with you, and you know that she's trying to pretend she's not angry with you. Question: does she know you know she's furious? Should you let on that you know? Does she want you to know she's angry but still get credit for being "fine"? If you let on that you know she's not fine, will she be angrier? Is she saying she's fine because she wants to make up or because she wants you to feel guilty and show remorse? Does she want sympathy? Pity? Groveling? Is she frustrated? How do you know?
You don't know, Jack. Stop pretending that you do.
We men don't know if you women are fascinated or bored silly when you say, "How interesting. . . ." We're not sure if you like somebody or hate her when you say, "Bless her heart." We don't know whether to run away or put on some mood music when you say, "Now just what do you think you're doing, mister?"
We men are all just gamblers at the verbal roulette table of Southern women. And the truth is: we like it like that.
When I was single, I took an ad out in the Andalusia Star-News that read: "Wanted: S. Belle. Only polite but fiery, willful but fragile, dewy but tough, flirtatious yet innocent, beautiful but dangerous-to-touch candidates need apply. Female is a must. Will enjoy Southern gentleman, lifelong supply of MoonPies, and a crazy set of in-laws."
It didn't work. No Southern woman (at that time) would ever place a telephone call to a man.
Southern men like the excitement of ambiguity. We like the hunt. We bore easily, and as a result, the women of the South have created an entire language of mystery to keep us guessing.
Like bass to a shiny lure, we men spend all this time trying to understand what women mean. It's as futile as looking heavenward on an evening stroll and trying to grasp the universe, time, or space. Leave that to the professionals with bigger telescopes.
What Southern males need is our own verbal armor, our own lexicon of subterfuge. Problem is, we're just too straightforward. When a man says, "He's a friend of mine," that means, he's a friend. We'll be buddies with just about anybody, provided they don't try to run off with our wives or businesses. When a man says, "He's an ass," the guy in question could give rides at the Grand Canyon. If he says, "I'm sorry," he's really sorry. Sorry he made you mad. Sorry he's standing there saying he's sorry. Sorry he's so sorry. When a Southern man says, "I love you," look out. He loves you. Loves every inch of you. Loves you like a summer nap, his mama, or a day watching his favorite football team.
Think I'm wrong, fellow? Go ahead and try your own coded version of the language. Good luck with that. Women know men are simple beasts. They've got us figured out. Try and practice their own dark alchemy on them, and you'll scramble the airwaves.
The man who says, "Your mother is such a delight," isn't fooling anybody.
If a man says, "She's got a great personality!" she knows you think she's fat.
It's not a term of affection when you say, "Honey, I said the game was tonight, not tomorrow." The honey doesn't sweeten the message.
Far better, gentlemen, to stick to the basics. Say what you mean and mean what you say, and we'll all be just fine.