Can Can Can

[Somewhat more rambly post, still frantically packing and finishing finals]

I’ve noticed something recently, about this phrase:

Can you do something for me?

There are two ways this phrase can go.

Can you do something for me…[by never doing this thing that I hate that you’ve been doing?]


Can you do something for me? [because I bet you had no idea this could be helpful, and I wanted to let you know, but also, you can say no to doing it!]

The first is unintentionally passive-aggressive: masquerading as the innocuous request that the second one actually is.

And I’m completely guilty of this. “Can you do something for me?” is how I trained myself to start asserting boundaries. It was the nice way to retroactively tell someone that their behavior had hurt me. I was being polite! I was leveraging my way into telling someone I wanted them to change their behavior! “Can you do something for me?” was a way to start the conversation that still gave me an out–I could chicken out and ask them to pass the potatoes, you know. I wasn’t really starting a Scary Conversation That Might Make Them Mad, I was just making it slightly more possible.

Can you do something for me?

Yeah, sure!

Can you not say that thing near me? It’s a huuuuge trigger, and I end up really distraught.

And I learned to start making boundary requests! But at the same time, I learned to have the gut-punch of fear any time an innocuous conversation opened this way. I wouldn’t be surprised if my friends started to feel this way too.

And this is the opposite of my goal! I want to have easy and clear communication, not shift the fear!anxiety to phrases that I also use to make normal requests. I’m not sure how to prevent myself from doing this in the future: this process was a step up from not saying anything at all, and the next step is not using a misleading opening. I’m not sure I could have leaped from Step One to Step Three.

‘Just do it’ is a successful strategy for some, and might have worked for me. I’m hesitant to advocate it though; the thing about Just Do It is that people who can’t Just Do It will nod and then carry on there merry way not doing it.


  1. says

    Ahhhh! Yep, I do that, although my attitude and tone generally indicate that the polite words are understatement. “Would you mind, terribly, not doing that?“. Admittedly, that’s all in one sentence, so no potential, er, sneak attack after waiting for a response. But I do that too. And yes, sometimes it is just a setup for a “stop doing that”, delivered with some force, if maybe also with some humour. So it may not be coming from the same direction as you – this happens when I’m not worried about how the other person will take it, or I’ve already been forced to assert some boundaries.

    In a less- or non-personal relationship, what can happen is that I will remain silent about whatever it is until enough buttons are pushed that I flip out. (Well, also with my brother and father, where I might contain responses to some BS or other until I reach the tipping point, trying to keep the peace until I no longer can. Because there is no point in trying to respond with a constructive difference of opinion earlier, it will end up going the same way anyway.)

    I must, at least occasionally, at least think in the same terms as you describe, since questions like that, or “Can I ask you a question?”, can easily sound like a setup, and sometimes my initial reaction is “Uh-oh, what is coming next?’ But I can usually tell whether or not to be anxious for a few seconds by the other person’s manner when they ask, but certainly not always. If I don’t use this same (more passive, less aggressive to start) technique, I at least understand it.

    All I can suggest is that if you find yourself “stuck” on the verbal opening which can be misleading, use tonal cues or body language to indicate that this isn’t going to be a “Can you pass me the salt” sort of request. And maybe you can find and move on to your more desired method from there. (Sometimes I even find that thinking about approximating the behavior I want lets me skip over the approximation and straight to what I had wished I had done on other occasions in retrospect.)

    My method of dealing with fear/anxiety, or boredom/irritation for that matter, is simply not to interact with a lot of people. This has it’s own consequences, and I’m good with that, but it certainly does not work for everyone. In closer personal relationships, my problem has mostly been not communicating things because I was respecting my partner’s boundaries of just how close they wanted to be.

  2. Pen says

    Depending on culture, the formalities around making a request are so varied and often artificial, but whatever they literally say, they often actually function as tokens of respect and non-hostility towards other people. And they vary so much from culture to culture which it’s why it’s easy to end up upsetting and offending people from other cultures.

    My culture requires you to introduce a need you have in the form of a delicate hint, preferably with some light humour attached. I’ve been primed from an early age to decode those communications and respond positively if at all possible. People can hugely offend me and leave me helpless by refusing (sorry, I mean being unable for cultural reasons) to respond to my hints. Also, both the ‘can I ask you…’ and ‘Just do it’ methods seem aggressive, since for me, they can usually only come into play after all else has failed. I am being aggressive if I resort to either of those, that’s for sure!

    Unfortunately for me, my culture isn’t the majority one in the English speaking world, so I guess it’s no guide to how you should act. I expect you have to adapt to the evolving conventions for non-hostile requests of your own culture.

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