My least favorite phrase

I’ve decided on my least favorite phrase in the English language:

“Can’t you just…?”

Why is this my least favorite phrase? Because:

  1. It’s always in conjunction with a task that the questioner does not understand, but assumes should not be difficult at all;
  2. it is inherently second-guessing the person being asked, which is insulting;
  3. and, rather than asking if something is possible, as in “Can you?” or “Could you?”, the speaker is really saying, “This must be possible, and if you can’t do it, you’re an idiot.”

If you don’t understand how the system works, or what is involved with doing a task, please, ask if something is possible. Don’t demean the craftsman or browbeat them into doing whatever it is you want. A resentful craftsman is not on your side, and will not go out of his/her way to help you.

4 Comments

  1. You’re making a good point. I think I usually try to phrase this question as “Why can’t we just …” or “What stops us from just …?”, for the exact reasons you point out. That way I can be fairly certain that it’s not misunderstood as a rude suggestion, but an actual question.

  2. Christine

    Thank you for putting this into words. Certain people in my life say this all the time, and they don’t understand why I hate it so much. It’s so nice to know that someone else feels the same way I do.

  3. Pete

    “WHY can’t we just…?” is not an improvement. It puts the burden of proof on the person questioned. My unconscious response to this question is always “If it were that easy, I would already have done it, you meddling pointy-haired progress-sabotaging time-waster.” A good rule of thumb is that anything following “can’t we just” will be utter twaddle and you should stop yourself before you finish the sentence and apologize for even thinking it.

  4. Nuz

    It’s the word “just” that bears the brunt of the demeaning/ second-guessing connotation. “Just” undermines every sentence it is in… “Oh sorry, I was just trying to help” gives a very different impression than “Oh sorry, I was trying to help”. Rule of thumb: Never say never, and never say just. You’re much better off without it. “Can we do it this way?” is a genuine question. “Why can’t we do it this way?” or “Help me understand why we can’t do it this way” are also genuine questions, and these are all degraded when the word “just” is inserted…

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