‘It is what it is’. The phrase sounds comforting, easy-going, and even relaxed. There’s no fighting to be done. But here, let’s dive into another potential meaning of this phrase.
I’ve had the chance to work with a German-based company in Malaysia and the manager was a man who was upbeat, sometimes optimistic, clear-cut, and I, at times, would also describe him as sly.
Everyone in the office knew and sometimes teased him about his popular saying, ‘It is what it is’ and I honestly thought nothing about it when I first met him. I thought, ‘I guess he’s got things figured out and is 100% sure of what he is doing with his work and life. His ducks are just in a row. There’s nothing wrong with THAT.’
A Hidden Meaning of ‘It is What it is’
I recently saw a video of Jimmy Kimmel interviewing Jerry Seinfeld for his latest Netflix venture, 23 Hours to Kill, and one of the clips shown during the segment was one of Seinfeld’s delivering a side joke of people who often said things like ‘Business is Business’, ‘A deal’s a deal’, ‘It is what it is’, ‘Rules are rules’.
He said, ‘If you say something twice in one sentence, you can say it with much more confidence!’, he joked.
I found it funny and chuckled along with the host and guest. Until it reminded me of the man I had worked with.
Most people would first decipher it as a statement coming from someone confident about what he/she was doing. He or she has clear acceptance of the situation. But during my research, I found that some people who use this phrase a lot were sometimes inwardly saying ‘I don’t have the power to change it, so, just accept it. That’s the way the world rolls.’
I then found a Quora thread a few weeks later after digging a little into the psychology of people who used the phrase far too often.
Experts say that it’s one thing to say it off-hand as a consolation or empathy, but for people who use it in every other sentence or during presentations, it means that they lack the resources, knowledge, or ability. They also don’t care enough to try and are not willing to help see you through your problems.
“This is also the approach that enables you to sell a stock or end a relationship when you realize it isn’t what you’d hoped, but it is what it is.”– Steven Mason, Writer of all things serious and parodic. Editor. Grammarian. Teacher.
While some might argue that i is a way of saying that this is the reality we have to face, we have to stick it out, there’s another side to this story.
What Happens When Something Serious Happens and the Answer is ‘It is What it is’?
Let’s say you’ve just purchased a faulty vacuum cleaner from the store and when you bring it back to the store, demanding an explanation from the store manager, all you get is ‘It is what it is‘? Is the phrase still acceptable?
What happens when someone in your family is at risk of Covid-19 and there are no tests available. When you lug her to the doctor or hospital, they tell you ‘It is what it is. Sorry.’
Does the short response now sounds completely flippant, irresponsible, and a despicable shrug? An excuse to not take action?
A Leader’s Use of the Phrase: What Does it Mean?
Peter Economy, The Leadership Guy from Inc.com has a different idea about what it means when a leader uses this phrase too often, to a point that it becomes his work and life motto.
While in most cases, people found the phrase ‘It is what it is’ to be quite inoffensive (like I did in the beginning), others called it worse names.
For example, an army officer with 15 years of experience in the field, Major Andrew Steadman, who runs training through his blogs, The Military Leader, and The Military Writers Guild, said it was a way of shrugging off responsibility.
He said that instead of admitting that something wasn’t right or that a mistake was made, some people replaced it entirely with simply ‘It is what it is‘.
When he arrived in Baghdad in 2007, he found people saying this phrase a lot.
1) “This Iraqi Army unit can’t show up to an operation on time, but it is what it is.”
2)”We’ve got a small outpost here, so parking will be tight. It is what it is.”
3) “We took a lot of casualties in this area, so you should be prepared for that. It is what it is.”
In the case of the gentleman boss I met and worked with, I thought the phrase gave off a sense of coolness, nonchalance, and gives me the impression that he was a thought leader who took things in his stride.
It aligned with my own personal principle that there are only so many battles we can fight and we should pick the right number of battles as our own and delegate the rest to those who are more in-the-know.
“I took it to be an indication that the speaker is letting the thing exist in all its rich uniqueness without having to categorize it or analyze it.”– Liane Gabora Ph.D., Psychology Today
I hope that made sense.
A Double-Edged Sword
As mentioned by Jerry Seinfeld in his new Netflix show, he found more and more people subscribing to the saying.
This doesn’t mean it is OK or represents the real meaning. It makes people comfortable (as in my case) but there is an underlying message that many of us miss if we are too naïve (which I am, admittedly).
If a man was standing in front of you holding a bat, you could say ‘He’s holding a bat‘ like he was heading to a baseball game. Or you could say ‘He’s holding a bat!’ like he was going to smash a parked car to a pulp.
People who think nothing of the saying ‘It is what it is‘ might be comfortable with not furthering an investigation into their own responses and emotions. They also choose to pick the more pleasant feeling associated with those words. They’re resisting the urge to force those words into a category – friendliness or danger?
In a way, the phrase It is what it is can also denote a kind of lack of understanding and unwillingness to listen to your version of the story. Or simply unwilling to change.
It’s also a way for a person to turn others away without explaining his or her stance. Sometimes, because it reflects their stance in life, it also means that they’re not really listening even if they were sitting in front of you, nodding away in seeming agreement.
What they’re saying is that they’ve probably made up their minds and even if you fail to understand the reason behind his or her reason, you have to accept the occurrence. They’re not willing to stop, look, and wait for you before they move on.
Telling people It is what it is is also the person’s way of closing the argument because there’s no comeback for ‘IT’ when it is already concluded. That they’re not going to take you seriously so, the argument’s over.
Imagine a young girl walking out of church crying and when asked her what was wrong, she told the passerby that she was physically assaulted by the Priest.
When the person in question answers with it is what it is, what do you think that means?
Note: Featured Image Source: Lukas on Pexels
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Anyway, take care, smile lots, and love your family.