The tricky thing about words is that people can interpret their meaning differently. Our tone of voice, the listener's past experiences, the context of the discussion, and whether it's a written or spoken conversation all play into how our words are understood.
But among all of the ways language can trip us up, misusing "can" and "will" may be the sneakiest mix up of all.
Imagine a boyfriend down on one knee, proposing to his girlfriend. He asks, "Can you marry me?" The girlfriend's head will cock back as she thinks, "I can, but do I want to?"
The phrase sounds so funny to the ear: Can you marry me? It's wimpy and uncertain and submissive. But we substitute "can" for "will" all the time, and it may be preventing you from getting what you want at home and at work.
I read about this idea 10 years ago in John Gray's book, "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." My husband and I were newly married, and I was studying up on men and women's general communication preferences and where those styles frustratingly do not intersect. Several chapters from Gray's book have stuck with me, but the improper use of "can" is one I've found most applicable, even in platonic relationships.
In the context of marriage and partnerships, Gray suggests that when women use "can" to ask their husbands to do something – "Can you take out the garbage?" – it sounds very much like the "Can you marry me?" question. The phrasing doesn't require him to make a commitment to action even though, to the woman, this is meant as an immediate request.
If he does agree to take out the trash, he's saying, "Yes, I'm capable of doing that, and I probably will at some point." But the wife is hearing "Yes, I will," and feels compelled to tell him again and again when he's failed to do it right away. This starts the cycle of nagging – something women don't want to do and men don't want to hear.
When I first read this part of the book, I rolled my eyes thinking, "Oh, please. Men know what that's supposed to mean," but then I caught myself. They know what that's supposed to mean? That's the crux of so many communication issues: We assume the intention of our words is clear when it's not.
I would still be turned off by a marriage proposal that started with, "Can you...?" even though I know now how innocently "can" and "will" can be swapped. I'm giving men the win on this particular Mars versus Venus debate because, as a writer, I appreciate how important and powerful words can be. We can't assume to know how others will interpret our "Can you" questions, so, by choosing our words differently, we make our lives a little easier.
Even knowing this, I was in disbelief that men could get so hung up on this one word, so I polled my immediate male family members. Sure enough, most of them, without hesitation, agreed that there is a huge difference between a "Can you" question and a "Will you" question.
Interestingly, my husband didn't see this as too big a deal, so I was off the hook at home. But I still interact with plenty of men within our social circle and especially at work. I made a concerted effort to use "will" in my professional correspondence.
It worked. My emails came across as more confident and less apologetic, and my international counterparts – both men and women – became more responsive to requests because my questions were phrased clearly with less chance for mistranslation.
Now that we have children, I'm conscious of the will/can distinction with them, too. Admittedly, a lot of times I'm telling them, not asking them, to do something. But when it's appropriate to submit a request, I try to correctly use my "cans" and "wills."
I figure, at the very least, I'm teaching them proper grammar. At best, I'm increasing my chances that my son will heed my request, and I'm modeling speaking assertively for my daughter. This might be the most valuable outcome of all.
Women are notorious for diminishing the importance of our requests. We use qualifiers – "just checking in" – when we don't need them. We preempt directives with apologies – "sorry to make you do this, but...." And we use "can" when we really mean "will."
No matter the setting, there's no downside to speaking in plain, direct language and saying what we mean. Some people may be turned off by it at first, but they can get used to it, and they will.