Thank you for replying to my question with “That’s fine”. I just wanted to know where the bathroom was, but you reassured me that it wasn’t a question that violated some obscure rule of etiquette that I’m unfamiliar with. And while I’m at it let me also thank you, a completely different person who told me “That’s fine”, when I brought you your package. I didn’t think it was fine that the delivery guy left it at my office, three floors below yours, but rather than wait at least twenty-four hours to give it back to him I thought it would be easier to bring it up to your office. Maybe that’s what you meant was fine: that a stranger went out of their way to make sure your overnight package got to you on time. And also, thank you pharmacist, for assuring me “That’s fine” when I told you I wanted to pick up my prescription. I didn’t realize it might be a problem—I kind of thought it was part of your job description to fill prescriptions and dispense them–until you said that, but I’m glad it wasn’t. I’m glad it was just fine.
When did “That’s fine” replace “Okay” as a way of saying, “I am responding affirmitavely to acknowledge my understanding of what you have just said”? For that matter when did it replace “Thank you”? Or maybe I’m the only one who’s noticed this. Maybe it only happens to me. I do occasionally get a little flustered in social interactions with complete strangers and sometimes that causes me to babble out lengthy explanations of what’s usually obvious with the result that I sometimes include completely superfluous information.
“Hi, this is your package, the delivery guy left it downstairs by mistake and, uh, rather than wait and give it back to him so he could deliver it tomorrow I thought I’d come up here and drop it off with you because it’s just a short elevator ride and I needed a quick break from the spreadsheets I’ve been looking at all day and I remembered what a cool view you have from the plate glass windows up here. My cubicle doesn’t have any windows and sometimes I wish it did. I have to get up and walk to the other side of the office to see any windows and it’s amazing how the view has changed over the years and I remember when we could open the windows. They won’t let us do that anymore because they say it throws off the air conditioning, but sometimes there’s nothing like a little fresh air when you’ve been looking at spreadsheets all day, even though my office is right over the parking garage where some people go to smoke. There aren’t as many smokers as there used to be, though. It’s amazing how that’s changed, isn’t it?”
Granted most of this stays in my head but maybe people sense that I’m anxious when I’m dropping off a package or picking up a prescription although I’m not sure I want to know if, or at least how, people are sensing that I’m in need of a bathroom even before I ask. Maybe “That’s fine” is just a way of shutting me up before I start babbling away like a chipmunk on meth.
And maybe I’m getting cranky in my middle age, although I’m pretty sure I never thought “That’s fine” would be an acceptable substitute for “Thank you” at any age, but I have a problem with using “That’s fine” to replace “Okay”. Sure, it’s the same number of syllables, but it’s twice as many words, five more letters, and an apostrophe. If it weren’t a strictly spoken reply it would be typographical overkill.
“That’s fine” is a phrase used to reassure someone that something really is fine.
“Hey, I’m sorry I ate the last of the leftover pizza and then panicked and burned down the house to hide what I’d done.”
“That’s fine. I was planning to move anyway. Wait, what do you mean the pizza’s gone?”
Replying with “That’s fine” to an innocuous statement or question also seems condescending, a way of dismissing the other person’s statement or question, of haughtily telling them, “I’m in charge of deciding what’s acceptable around here.”
Although if you ask me there’s nothing wrong with being condescending or dismissive or even haughty. In fact if you do ask me I’ll just say that’s fine.