Can’t vs. Won’t: A deliberately controversial post

One of Laura Vanderkam’s hobby horses is this idea that you should never say you “can’t” do something, just that you don’t want to make those trade-offs.

Of course, usually people are using “can’t” as a short-hand for “could but I’d have to do all these other things I either don’t want to do or I don’t want to tell you about possibly because it’s none of your business.”

The basic idea makes some sense, the idea being that it gives you agency.  It isn’t that you can’t quit your job, you just don’t want to give up the income from your job and downsize your home etc.  From one perspective you can’t, because you can’t without giving up things you don’t want to give up, but from another perspective you’re not really trapped.  Maybe “won’t” instead of “can’t” will help you think about alternative things that will get you want you want.  In my world view you’ve already thought these things through, but I’m not a self-help guru… I assume people are already at their optimum unless they’ve told me otherwise.  Any changes I force on people are going to knock them off their optimum path.  (Though in some cases society may prosper with the change because of externalities, spillovers, and so on.)

But is agency always a good thing?

There’s a couple of books that summarize literature than includes research on the benefits of limiting choices.  Framing something as “can’t” rather than “won’t” means you don’t have to think about re-optimizing every time you’re faced with a choice.  For example, when I had borderline gestational diabetes, I said that I couldn’t have sugars or refined calories.  Now, of course, I *could* (heck someone with celiac can have wheat so long as ze is willing to face the extremely dire consequences), but I didn’t want to hurt the baby, have a c-section (because of my irrational fear of anesthesiologists among other more rational reasons), or whatever.  If I’d said, “I choose not to” (but could make another choice) or “I won’t” (but am susceptible to cajoling) that would have made it much more difficult to resist the temptation I was resisting every time I was offered something that would spike my insulin.  Now that the only negative consequence to eating refined carbs is me getting fat (and some longer-term unproven potential health consequences), it is much more difficult to mentally frame the choice as “truly can’t.”  So I eat more refined carbs, even though I know I probably shouldn’t and in time t-1 would choose to not be offered the potato chips in time t if I could.  Allowing the choice makes it much harder for me to say no when the opportunity presents itself.  Many other reasons how and why arbitrarily limiting choices can help willpower and happiness can be found in the book Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney.

The Paradox of Choice is another great book that talks about the benefits of limiting choice (or rather, the problems with not limiting it). We’re often happier when we’ve made an irrevocable decision and don’t have to think about it anymore, and what is “can’t” other than a signal that we’ve made the decision not to and we’re sticking to it.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of sociology literature on how people react to “decisions” other people have made.  It turns out that people have much more sympathy towards people when they don’t think a choice has been made and a lot more blame when they think the person made an active choice.  For example, is homosexuality a choice?  Under LV’s definition it is– if only the homosexual person had a different utility function or budget constraint, he or she would be heterosexual!  When experimental participants are primed to think that homosexuality is a choice, they are more likely to think badly of homosexuals and homosexual causes (e.g. gay marriage) than when they are primed to think it is not a choice.  An enormous literature covers this finding across many different areas from obesity to welfare receipt.  Saying can’t instead of won’t is a way that we attempt to protect ourselves from the judgment of others.  So much the better if we can’t because our circumstances are different.  Changing to “won’t” in common parlance may hurt our interactions with other people.

On top of all that (or perhaps negating all that!), the idea that language changes culture is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and you can read up on how it has been well and thoroughly discredited.  Everybody knows that “can’t” only actually means “absolutely can’t” in certain situations (“I can’t have children [because I am infertile]”) and has the addendum “given reasons I’d rather not go into detail about or are obvious” in most situations (“I can’t have breakable china until my kids are older”).  Most people are pretty good at context and know when they’re using the short-hand “can’t” rather than the absolute “can’t”.  Because the word “can’t” already encompasses a vast spectrum of meanings, only in rare cases could using won’t or don’t instead of can’t actually affect anything, in theory.

And in practice, it’s far more likely that even those rare cases are really reverse causality– a person has a defeatist attitude or just hasn’t thought of all the possibilities and unhappily says “can’t” because of that, not the other way around.  In those cases, the response should not be to use different language, but to think of why the person thinks it’s impossible.  The attack should be on the thinking, not on the words.  That’s not to say that positive restructuring from cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t work– it does and there’s a large literature on it working.  In situations for which CBT is recommended, anxiety, depression, etc. then changing “can’t” to “won’t” or even “will” may be appropriate and effective, but that also comes with the introspection of what changes can be made.  It isn’t solely the change in wording, but a complete change in mental framing.

Obviously, not having pretty china is not a cause of anxiety or depression for most people.  When someone says they can’t have breakable china because they have small children, it’s pretty ridiculous to suggest that they reframe that, unless the person is really really unhappy about not having breakable china.  And if they are really unhappy about Corelle, they probably actually already do have breakable china or carpeting in the kitchen or what have you.  Because what problem is reframing “can’t have breakable china” as “choose not to have breakable (even though I want it)” solving?  Oh gee, now I have the agency to make different choices about my china than the choices I’ve already made, even though I already knew I was making those choices when I used the short-hand “can’t” rather than “won’t.”

Update:  There were many interesting and thought-provoking comments on LV’s post expanding on her complaints about wording choice but my favorite has to be this one from The Frugal Girl:

I think sometimes these discussions can be like when someone points out to you that a tomato isn’t a vegetable.
Ok, this is technically true, but no one’s going to put it into a fruit salad anyway, so what is the point?

So, bottom-line.  It’s ok to say you can’t do something even if what you mean is you’ve “chosen not to given your utility functions and your budget constraint”.  Only in cases in which you are really unhappy about the choices you’ve made or feel that you’ve been forced into should you go back and think more about how you can change them.  And don’t go lecturing people about their choice to use “can’t” instead of “won’t” unless changing that language is actually going to make them happier.  I can assure you that I derive no additional happiness from being told that I could have pretty breakable china if I just wanted it enough.  And the title, “Things I want but can’t have until my children are older” is much more fun than, “Things I may get if I still want them in the future when my children are older,” even if the latter is framed positively.   Seriously, this blog is called GRUMPY RUMBLINGS.  We have to rumble grumpily sometimes or we lose street cred.+

+Ignore the fact that from a cognitive restructuring standpoint, both phrases are actually positively framed indicating that I can have these things later even if I can’t have them now.  (Willpower also talks about the positive effect of noting you can have stuff later.)  We still rumble with the grumps.

Ok Grumpeteers!  Go!

67 Responses to “Can’t vs. Won’t: A deliberately controversial post”

  1. bogart Says:

    I think you’ve pretty much covered it. I can’t ;) add anything.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Is that why everyone is being so quiet? Or am I just getting really bad at figuring out what is and isn’t controversial? Alternatively, people have already said their piece and are tired of the topic.

  2. gwinne Says:

    I can’t write this morning.

    Well, I suppose actually I could write this morning but nicoleandmaggie put up a post and I have absolutely no willpower :)

    In all seriousness, beyond the two books you mention above (both of which I’ve read), wondering what you’re reading in sociology. Trying to get outside my field, you know, for FUN.

  3. Miser Mom Says:

    I think there’s a matter of personality going on here. I like agency. I’m the one who goes around refusing paper plates and plastic forks because I “don’t” do trash. (Neither “can’t” nor “won’t”, but just “don’t”).

    I agree you’re not a “things I might get later, if I still want them” kind of bloggers. But I could see you guys being appropriately grumpy with a post, “Things I want but I refuse to have until my children are older”. And for me, that’s probably how *I* would have said it, because I like knowing that I made a choice, and it’s my choice, and I own it, dangit!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Meh, we just know that “can’t” is usually shorthand for “isn’t where our utility curves hit our budget constraint”. If our budget constraint were less constraining then we’d have more options. The world is not built on utility curves alone (nor is it built on budget constraints alone).

      More generous budget constraints for the 99%!

  4. xykademiqz Says:

    I too am irritated by the sanctimonious “There’s no can’t; if you really wanted to, you would”. Yeah, so what? I guess I don’t really want it that much. (A common example is losing weight. People say “can’t” and, unless there’s an underlying medical issue, “can’t” is really not true; what it really means is that pulling it off is really hard, the person usually tried and failed and may be unwilling to try any further or try different ways.)

    Sometimes, saying “I can’t do [something the other person does]” is a polite way of saying to another person “What you do is stupid/boring/pointless/idiotic, there is no chance in hell I would engage in it, ” essentially pulling off a version of “It’s not you, it’s me.” How funny that the other person, to whom you are trying to be kind, comes back with “But you could if you really wanted to!” Well, I guess there’s your answer! ;-)

    (Btw, a very good and well-rounded post!)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hee, yes, there’s your answer!

      Though I admit I’m that other person when it comes to people saying they can’t do math. They can. I suppose some people feel that way about exercise and stuff (which is why I say I don’t want to when people ask about exercise– I own that shame!).

    • Cloud Says:

      There’s actually a reasonable biological argument that a not insignificant number of “normal” people actually can’t lose weight, not long term. Our bodies have evolved to hoard calories, and we don’t yet understand how the various systems that maintain weight interact to game them with any reliability.

      This doesn’t stop me from trying to lose weight, though, because in general I’ll take a loss that only lasts for 5 years if it makes those 5 years healthier and happier! I won’t try to lose weight via diets, though, because those tend to make you end up heavier in the long run.

      It is a fascinating area of biology if you can put aside how unbelievably annoying it is when combined with cultural pressures to be thin. I’m out of date on it and am considering reading up again just because I find it so interesting.

      Sorry, that comment had nothing to do with the post, which I’ll read over lunch and perhaps have a more meaningful comment on. I missed the original discussion because I was on vacation.

  5. Mynolo Says:

    One of the things I read in the “don’t use ‘can’t’” approach is the underlying assumption that the person saying “can’t” hasn’t thought through all the choices leading up to that conclusion. While in some cases it is a worthwhile exercise to reevaluate those choices, in most situations that work has been done and it doesn’t add anything to the conversation to doubt the validity of the decision-making process that lead to “can’t.”

    Your statement “It turns out that people have much more sympathy towards people when they don’t think a choice has been made and a lot more blame when they think the person made an active choice” is very interesting. In my field (also academia), I find that schedule constraints as a result of childcare issues aren’t widely accepted. Using your conclusion, it would follow that childcare responsibilities ( are an active choice and, therefore, blame is assigned for being “unavailable” as a result of those choices. When one is a solo parent, choices about childcare are fewer – as in, unless I hire someone to bring my 4 & 6 year old to school, I’m the one doing it – so to my mind there isn’t a choice while to others there may be a perception of an active choice.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      One of the papers is actually on that very topic– they varied whether or not motherhood was a choice (via some kind of article stimulus) and found assessment/raise outcomes were better for mothers when motherhood was not considered to be a choice.

      • Mynolo Says:

        Fascinating. And possibly depressing as my family was built through adoption, which lends itself to the perception by others of motherhood as a choice. (I would also agree that I chose to be a mother. However, (1) doesn’t everyone who is a mother have an element of choice in the outcome and (2) the choice to be a mother doesn’t impact the subsequent responsibilities, no matter how one came to motherhood.) Do you remember if adoption was considered in the study you refer to?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I don’t think it was, but I’m not sure. It might have been this paper: Kricheli-Katz, Tamar. 2013. “Choice-Based Discrimination: Labor-Force-Type Discrimination against Gay Men, the Obese, and Mothers.” Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 10(4), 670-95.

    • Rented life Says:

      That is my experience with people who get picky about “can’t”–they assume I thought process has happened. Additionally it tends to be the same kind of people who then attribute things they *could* do to some sort of internal factor: “your generation is just inherently techno-saavy” for example, as if I was born with some digital gene and my dad wasn’t. (He loves to pick apart can’t but doesn’t look at his own word choices.) it’s not inherent, it can be learned but without saying can’t/won’t he is still saying he’s not bothering to learn.

      I think we make our own choices/have agency for the most part and the need to dissect won’t and can’t seems a bit much.

      • Rented life Says:

        Good lord the typos. Apparently I can’t type well (yet? How long will it take?) on my phone.

    • Rosa Says:

      I find in financial matters especially, “can’t” is WAY less of an interpersonal problem than “won’t”. “I can’t afford to do that thing you want to do,” is assumed to mean “I literally don’t have the money” when it actually means “because I am going to do something else I want to do”. Because if you say “I am choosing the thing I value over the thing you value” people feel pretty free to either have hurt feelings about how you value something more than them, or tell you your priorities are bad and wrong and you should spend your money how they want.

      I always feel bad because “I literally don’t have the money” is rarely true for us. But then I think, the people who literally don’t have the money, it’s because they spent it on a bunch of other stuff already. So they’re usually just choosing their values over mine anyway. It’s just that their values don’t include savings like mine do.

  6. chacha1 Says:

    I think a lot of this type of discussion flows past me. I like agency, and I have no problem standing behind my choices, BUT (“check your privilege!”) I am well aware that my self-confidence proceeds in large part from my current life situation (which is a product of my choices) and that my current life situation is actually kind of uncommon.

    Mentally I apply “don’t” much more frequently than “can’t”. I don’t change my own oil. I don’t ride a bike. I don’t drink sodas. I guess I think “don’t” is more neutral than “won’t”. “Won’t” after all means “will not” and I don’t (HA!) as a rule, rule things out that categorically. I certainly will drink a soda if I’m thirsty and that is my only choice.

    I tend not to use “can’t” unless I am saying NO to someone who wants me to do something I don’t want to do. Because it will be perceived as rude [unsympathetic, unhelpful, hurtful – depending on the tenderness of the asker] to say “no, I don’t want to do that,” I tend to frame the response as “no, I can’t do that because [conflict]”.

    And I think that a bias against choice (e.g. the motherhood and homosexuality studies) is a glaring symptom of the patriarchy. Nobody ever blames straight white men for being who they are.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Unless they’re poor straight white men…

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I can change my oil and I can ride a bike although I don’t, although I can’t ride my bike to work because it’s dangerous and hot (though really I choose not to because I don’t want to get hit by a car or pass out from heat exhaustion, but having to say all that just makes me feel grumpy). I could ride my bike around the neighborhood except I can’t because I’d have to buy a bike first. I shouldn’t drink sodas, and when I was pregnant, I couldn’t, although really I could they would just increase chances of bad things happening. So I dunno, some of those “can” are underlying ability things, and I do have the underlying ability to do them, but in specific circumstances my budget set is much more restricted, leading to the “can’t” rather than the “won’t”. I can’t or bad things will happen that I don’t want or there’s something actually preventing me from doing it.

      • chacha1 Says:

        I don’t think that’s true, though. Poor straight white men are the MOST likely to think being a straight white man is a good thing. The chance of a poor straight white man actually wanting to be any other thing than a straight white man is vanishingly small. What they resent is liberality or wealth or success or the markers thereof that they themselves do not possess, not the straight-white-man-ness of their resented party. :-) It’s like the trolls on Scalzi’s site: they hate him for being liberal and successful, not for being straight and white and male + liberal and successful (to the extent that they can articulate their motives, which is typically not very far). They hate non-white non-straight non-male people who are liberal and successful even more.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think those poor straight white men hate other poor straight white men. They think they’re exceptions. And yes, it’s the “poor” part that is hated, not the straight white male part.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Or did you mean people blame poor straight white men for being who *they* are? Because I think people blame poor people for being poor, but I don’t think it’s amplified by straight-white-man-ness. Poor women (or black men, or Latino men, or basically any recent immigrant) are blamed a helluva lot more for being poor than poor straight white men are. They are blamed just for existing.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yes, that. And yes, they’re all different difficulty settings, to use the Scalzi terminology.

  7. Ana Says:

    I actually COULDN’T comment on your post because I CHOSE to put your blog in Leechblock, that I CHOSE to install because I CAN’T write when there are interesting blog posts to read.

    seriously, though, I was going to write something similar and you did it better (with research and references and everything!)

    also I have nothing more to say because a) your post is incredibly thorough and even-handed (not controversial at all, sorry) and b) did this discussion to death on your previous post and LVs

  8. Cloud Says:

    This is a really nice post.

    I think the only quibble I have is that I’ve run into a lot of people who are really bad at figuring out their own optimum. Frankly, I’m not all that great at it unless I consciously focus on doing it. To figure out your true optimum, you have to be able to screen out all of the (often conflicting) cultural noise telling you what you “should” do, and that is hard. You guys are really good at it (hooray!) but a lot of us need some help. I think that need for help in figuring out our own true optimum is one of the reasons people read self-help books. (It is also, incidentally, one of the things I liked best about reading philosophy, back when I did that.) Sometimes, someone asking me “can’t or won’t?” is the kick in the pants I need to really focus on what *I* want.

    However, I don’t really know if I usually frame things as “can’t” or “won’t” or “don’t.” I’ll have to pay attention and think about that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, that’s something we have a post on in the future too… though we may accuse self-help book writers of often *creating* that debilitating cultural noise in order to sell books.

      For the most part we assume that people are doing the optimum unless they tell us they’re not (generally by saying they’re not happy). And, of course, there’s the patriarchy.

      “Can’t or won’t” is still pretty ridiculous when you’re talking about buying Corelle instead of Wedgewood when you have small children or you want your kid’s teeth to finish coming in so you stop having to wake up in the middle of the night to re-administer Motrin. “If you just wanted sleep enough you’d leave your kids for a week and let them cry out the pain.” Like frugalgirl said, yes, technically a tomato is a fruit, but nobody is going to put it in fruit salad. (If you do, you call it a salsa instead.)

    • life_of_a_fool Says:

      This is along the lines of what i was thinking as well. I think it’s really fascinating (and not uncommon) that people *feel* like they have no choice. They feel genuinely trapped by their circumstances, and maybe partly they are, structurally or by difficult choices, but there may be greater choice than they can see. I don’t (usually?) consider it my job to tell them otherwise, but I think that’s a fascinating psychological/sociological phenomenon. (and for myself, it is sometimes useful to remind myself that I may not like my choices, but there are still some choices involved).

      Whether or not you or anyone uses Corelle rather than fine china when they have young kids, or for any other reason — that’s your call and your utility curve decision and what possible difference could it matter to me, including what words you use to describe those decisions. I do, however, sometimes get irritated in the circumstances like “I can’t do math” or “I could never do X physical feat.” Maybe you won’t be a prize-winning mathematician or an Olympian — but the people who do those things are usually *working* really hard at it. Some people seem to assume that people who are good at X, Y, or Z are good at it as a result of natural talent, not hard work. If that’s not your bag, more power to you, go off and spend your time how you choose. But the assumption or implication that those who are good at it are just naturally so does irritate me. So, it depends on what someone is talking about “can’t” or “won’t” or “don’t.”

      • chacha1 Says:

        Yep. :-) “I can’t” frequently = “It’s too much work.” Which is fine, why not just say that? It’s allowed to choose what you’re going to spend your time and money and effort on. I don’t get why people would rather say they CAN’T do something versus that they choose not to. There must be a lot more choice-blaming out there than I see.

        We meet people all the time who say “I can’t dance;” well, they’ve never taken a lesson. Of course they can’t. But they COULD. :-)

  9. Liz Says:

    The only times I wish people (myself, or others) would stop saying “I can’t” are when they are holding themselves back. I can’t buy those shoes right now – ok fine. I can’t get a new job [because I’m not good enough] – f*** that, yes you can. I can’t get a new job [because I haven’t applied anywhere] – yeah, that makes sense. I can’t leave my abusive husband – ummm, let’s talk about that for a minute.

    Ultimately, though, it’s not my place to criticize or judge anyone’s choice of words. Unless I’m a teacher. Depose =/= oppose, people. Get with it.

    Can’t, won’t – whatever. I thought this whole interwebs argument was hilarious. Especially that she wrote her own post. And then you responded on it mightily. Gave me the giggles.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We at grumpy rumblings serve to amuse and entertain.

      In fairness to women stuck in abusive situations, from what I understand there’s more of the “can’t” there because of psychology stuff I don’t really understand. But yes, it is important to help them find the “can” if we can. :(

      But otherwise, I think we’re in agreement with you about when we wish people wouldn’t use it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You say tomato, I say fruit salad… I mean salsa…

  10. OMDG Says:

    Generally speaking, my impression is that when people tell you that it’s not that you can’t, it’s that you won’t, they aren’t all that interested in making YOU happier, they are interested in making themselves feel good. Maybe they think you’re whining and want you to stop. Maybe they are a know it all. Maybe they are just pedantic. In any case, it’s a pretty annoying thing to say.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      HAHAHAHA. No comment. :)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      and that makes me feel a little better about my response to my math-haters who say they can’t do math… I say they can (and generally they have to do it– haven’t gotten our dept secretary to get rid of her math phobia yet… but I only say it when she says she wishes she could do math) and then I show them how they can. I never say they won’t or they choose not to or it isn’t a priority to them, I always say they can and they will. And then they do. (Department secretary excluded, though I’m sure if she had to she would.)

  11. becca Says:

    Back in my day, proclamations of “I can’t” could get you signed up for a LOT of penalty pushups in gymnastics class. Importantly, “I can’t!!!… *looks around hurriedly* … YET! YET!” would get you off the hook.

    Also, with all due respect, “tomato”: “fruit” :: “can’t” : “chosen not to given your utility functions and your budget constraint”.
    I know perfectly well that when people use “can’t” they generally mean “won’t”… but I also know perfectly well that they are ASKING to be seen as not responsible for that choice. When it’s homosexuality, or obesity, they don’t get judgey McJudgeypants stuff from me whatever term they use. But when it’s “We can’t take welfare!” (e.g. foodstamps/but we have no problem with the mortgage interest tax deduction wealth transfer), then I hear it perfectly accurately as “We won’t take welfare!” (because we’d rather feed our kids unbalanced diets than be associated with *those* poors).

  12. andy Says:

    I also think of this type of distinction when people say “I don’t have time to do x” (where x might be exercise, cooking etc).

    What you really mean is that you don’t prioritise x – that’s okay but don’t complain about your lack of time (especially if you can find the time to watch hours of tv…)

  13. Miriam Says:

    I dislike the can’t vs. won’t thing because to me, it seems like part of a general tendency in US culture to emphasize personal accountability at the expense of recognizing structural constraints. Sure, there are times when people are legitimately holding themselves back with a defeatist attitude, but sometimes there are external factors that either aren’t worth pushing against (as you point to) or aren’t reasonably possible to push back against. In the latter two cases, I think it’s only worth arguing can’t/won’t if you’re offering new assistance.

    I also think the can’t/won’t thing gets downright dangerous when it’s being done by coaches. I’ve been in studios where the word “can’t” is banned. Except sometimes a person really can’t do one more push-up or one more flip or one more lap around the track, at least not without incurring injury. Coaches have to push, but coaches also need to back down and trust that if a person says they can’t do something, they can’t.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      YES. Increased budget constraints for the 99%! And stop beating the 47% up about their utility curves. Those curves would look much more normal to the rest of us if they had regular income, security, and hope.

    • becca Says:

      I see what you mean about coaches. I’ve seen the anti-can’t used effectively to *break through fear of even trying something new* (something that might or might not empirically look crazy, given that it was gymnastics, but which an experienced coach knows is the next step). I’ve seen the anti-can’t used ineffectively to attempt to break through absolute exhaustion.

  14. Griffin Says:

    I never commented on Laura’s original post about choice but have been following this conversation with interest. I was eager to see your response and appreciate your writing it. Including the literature keeps topics like this from getting out of hand and misguided.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      When LV researches her self-help advice, it is very good. She’s very good at explaining theory and empirics in ways that make sense to lay-readers. When she (or anyone) gives “my way is the only way” self-help advice without any of that base, it can be harmful.

  15. MidA Says:

    It’s all about the context in which “can’t” vs “won’t” is used, as you alluded to in your comment about your department secretary. If someone says “I wish I could (learn math/ride my bike to work/have Wedgewood china), but it’s too hard to do so”, the “wish” implies unhappiness and a problem in need of solving. Thus, a natural response is to help identify and overcome the barriers.

    It also depends on what the intended point is of telling someone you can’t do something. Are you declining to participate? Can’t is fine and likely more polite than “don’t want to” (though my preference is to say that I already have other commitments–no need to specify if temporal, monetary, social, etc., and not seen as a judgement of the activity/cause/whatever you are declining). If you responding to another conversational point (“I love entertaining and really enjoy using my grandmother’s fine china!” “Sounds fun! I can’t have china until my kids are older.”), I could see how can’t becomes a conversation killer. How else is one supposed to respond? It would be easier to keep the flow going if instead it was “Sounds fun! I’m excited to use my china again once the kids are a bit older.”

    Obviously all hypothetical, but again, I think context and conversational intent are both key.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Good points!

      For the original context that spurred this deliberately controversial post, check out the link under “her complaints” and see what you think. :)

      • MidA Says:

        Ok, just read the comments! In the context of a light-hearted post, “can’t” was clearly a more fun short-hand for “theoretically possible but doesn’t make practical sense” and was very much in the spirit of the list. Picking on language/agency felt out of place within this context. As such, I rule in favor of Grumpy Rumblings in this case. :)

  16. Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

    There is certainly a convenience factor in using the word “can’t” as it doesn’t require further explanation…but I’m in Laura’s court here. It’s definitely one of my pet peeves as well. I see too many people artificially constraining themselves to the lifestyles they have even if it’s the wrong fit for them. Owning a home comes to’s not for everyone, but like Cloud says, there’s all this societal pressure to have one so there are quite a few people who feel like a failure if they don’t have one.

    Also, I also have many friends that live lifestyles that are on the fringe of what’s considered socially acceptable, so I have some perspective that a lot of people do not because of the company I keep. Yes, it is possible to quit your high paying job, sell your house and live in a camper for 2 years with a wife and 2 toddlers in tow. Most people with a young family (including myself) would say I can’t do that. In reality, I just “won’t” do that because I need the job security and I’m thinking far ahead at costs. I find that in general, these types of risk takers often come from a wealthier upbringing. Maybe my kids will feel that kind of freedom, but I certainly do not.

    Lastly, the whiniest most excuse making, blame others for their shortcomings people I know use the word can’t a lot more than they should. No, I can’t pay off my credit cards…and I also at the same time can’t give up any of my creature comforts that got me into this debt in the first place. (Just one example.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      GRS has been annoying me this week too. But I think HS has been pretty upfront that it isn’t CANT but WONT, and the won’t is JUST AS IRRITATING. It’s the underlying thought processes and rationalization that’s annoying, not the use of language.

      (Granted, I’m the same way about exercise, but I’m not being held up as a role model for fitness, nor am I writing for get fit slowly!)

      • chacha1 Says:

        Bahahaa! I barely read GRS any more now that HS is one of the primary voices.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I feel so dirty and like I’m such a bad person when I read and respond. I think mean thoughts. I say pointed things. Reading her on GRS is adding years of purgatory to my afterlife. Unless I can become more Saint Terese-like (the French one), I don’t think it’s good for my soul.

      • Leigh Says:

        Yeah, they went from a -$200k net worth two years ago to a -$100k one today in a low cost of living area with her husband having a well-paying job. People clearly have different priorities.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That’s far better than it sounds on her posts and comments. How did they pay off $100K with her only making those teeny tiny dents and spending so very much? Don’t make me read the post.

  17. notofgeneralinterest2 Says:

    Can’t, won’t–both really mean the same thing to me if someone says them, which is “not going to happen and it’s time for you to change the subject”–so I do, hoping that they’ll extend me the same courtesy.

  18. SP Says:

    Nope, not controversial. It is usually unhelpful to tell other people their “can’t” is a choice, at least if the other person is me. It may occasionally be helpful when talking to yourself, but I’m pretty honest with myself and know when I’m saying “meh, don’t want to do that” vs. “actually not possible.”

    At work, I often hear a more realistic “it is not a priority”, which can be clearer because it shuts down debate and lets the other person know that it has been considered and discarded. But that would be a stupid blog post title, and it isn’t like there should be people who have a vested interest in debating your china purchases (or lack thereof).

    Also, I quite liked xykademiqz’s comment. I guess there’s your answer!

  19. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Nothing to add on the topic of the post. But I totally lolzed that you are afraid of anesthesiologists, as opposed to anesthesia.

  20. How often do you have to buy new plates and glasses: Musings on breakage | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] many years, you ask?  I can actually tell you that because deciding to buy Corelle caused some internet drama when I realized it would be foolish to get a nice set of Lenox or Wedgewood to replace the brave […]

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