Thursday, July 22, 2010

I Will...

Have you ever had someone say to you "I will do XYZ" and then he/she/they never does XYZ? Does that annoy you, or do you receive what they say with a grain of salt, not necessarily actually expecting them to do XYZ?

I've observed this so often that I'm beginning to wonder if the phrase "I will X" has joined the category of other polite-(or expected)- speech-that-shouldn't-be-taken-literally? You know what I mean--when I say "how are you?" and you reply "fine, thanks" but really you're not fine at all--you're sick, hungry, and wish I'd leave you alone. And really, I didn't want to know how you are, I was just greeting you in the culturally acceptable way. Has the phrase "I"ll do such-and-such" come to be polite speech only, not to be taken literally?

A couple examples: On Facebook I reconnected with an old college friend of 35 years ago. Turns out, we only live a few miles from each other. We started to make plans to get together for lunch. Then she said, "Oh, I can't do it this week because of XYZ, but I'll call you next week." A year later, she hasn't called and we haven't met for lunch.

What happened there? Did she actually lie to me? Did she change her mind about wanting to see me? Did an emergency come up? Did she forget? Did she get too busy?

I don't think she lied to me, and I think she'd still like to see me. I doubt an emergency came up. More likely, life just got in the way and calling me never got high enough on her to-do list. Given that conclusion, how do I think about her words "I'll call you"?

OK, you are probably thinking of other examples:
  • the guy just met the girl at a party and says "I'll call you."
  • the prospective employer saying to the interviewee, "We'll get back to you."
And then we can broaden it a bit to some related examples:
  • If you need any help, just call me.
  • I'm available anytime you need a ride.
  • I'll pray for you.
  • If you need a place to stay, let me know.
  • I'm here for you.
I like it when people actually mean what they say and consider their own words to be binding unless something akin to an emergency intervenes. But, I'm beginning to wonder if the words "I will do X" have subtly changed in meaning from originally meaning "I fully intend and promise to do X unless something major stops me" to mean something more like "I might do X, I hope to do X if I can, but I certainly haven't made a commitment to do X and you shouldn't think that I have."

Conclusion: I personally wish people would instead say "I hope to do X" or "I'd like to do X if I can" rather than "I will do X"--that just seems more truthful, let alone more polite and kind to the hearer. But maybe the language "I will do X" has changed its meaning in the area of purport. As an armchair linguist I know language (sounds, grammar, meanings) does change over time--am I just observing that change?