In Armenia you say “not too bad” just for two main reasons. It is either because something is so bad that you’d better hide your opinion, or something is neither bad nor good, just meh! When Armenians think something is good, they will for sure say so!
This is not the case with my husband. Being a true Minnesotan, he uses this phrase every time I ask for his opinion about anything. I can ask him about the food I cook, or clothes I wear, or even my hairstyle. In other words, it can be anything, and most of the time the answer is “It’s not too bad!” The problem is that I can never understand what that phrase really means. Is it good, bad or neutral? It is almost like having D for math but trying to understand a math formula of difficulty level 100.
To help make what I am talking about clear, I will give an example of one of our common dialogues when I ask my husband for his opinion about something.
“So, do you like it?”I ask.
“It’s not too bad” he says.
“So, you don’t like it?”
“No, I did not say that.”
“Are you being polite again?” I keep asking.
“No, I am not being polite. It is not too bad.”
“Well, if it was good, you would say it was good.”
“No, this is not what it means. You need to understand that there are several layers of bad,” he explains, “So, not too bad means that it’s the good level of bad.”
“So, it’s bad but not that bad?” I try to understand.
“Absolutely wrong! The meaning of not too bad also depends on where you put the stress, what your intonation is,” he confuses me even more.
“Excuse me?” I widen my eyes.
“See, if I put the stress on ‘too,’ it means that I am not sure if it is good or bad. It is just not ‘too’ bad. If the stress is on ‘bad,’ it means that it’s actually good.”
“So much work! Why can’t you just say good or bad?” I protest.
“Well, be happy I didn’t say ‘it’s different’ – because then it would mean it is the worst thing ever.”
Eh, go figure!