“Hey! How was your day?”
“Oh, you know. Fine.”
And there it is. No information. No emotion. Just, fine—the swiftest four-letter conversation killer next to “dead” or “ABBA.”
How is it that a word so small could pose a conversational road block so massive? How do we break ourselves from the “fine” impulse? Games researcher Jane McGonigal, PhD, has a solution: if we don’t like the answer, maybe we need to ask a better question.
“Pick somebody in your life and send them a message asking them how their day is going on a scale of one to 10,” McGonigal suggests. “And it’s very important that you ask them on a scale of one to 10 for a couple of reasons.”
Anyone can think of a number between one and 10, McGonigal reasons, and once they do, chances are they will want to explain their number to you too (asking for a number also nips the dreaded “I’m fine” in the bud).
But even if your partner does answer you with a simple, “five” (the numerical equivalent of “fine,”) you’re about to draw them out with part two of this game: When you do get a reply, immediately write back and say, “Is there anything I can do to move you from a five to a six?” (or “from an eight to a nine” or “from a 10 to an 11,” etc.) If McGonigal’s research is accurate, you’ve just made someone’s day.
“This [exercise] is designed to adapt the best features of social games to everyday life,” McGonigal writes in her book SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient—Powered by the Science of Games. “It’s quick and easy, and like online games, you don’t have to be face to face to do it. It models reciprocity: by offering to make someone’s day +1 better, you’re communicating that you care and that they can count on you for support. And it increases common ground—if they explain their number to you, you’ll know a little bit more about what’s going on, which gives you something to talk about. If they don’t explain their number, you’ve still checked in—and every check-in helps increase the familiarity that leads to stronger relationships.”
Want to score a bonus point-multiplier from this little relationship booster? Ask your parents the one-to-10 question.
“[Parents are] like, the most prime audience for this,” Jane points out. “They will write you back a paragraph on why it’s an eight day and then you offer to plus one and they’re just like, ‘It’s already plus one because you wrote!’”
Press send on that message, then try these brilliant relationship tricks from the happiest couples on Reddit.