As soon as you say it, it’s not true.
I Don’t Care
Three little words. Fewer than a dozen letters. A phrase that rolls off our tongues so easily we say it to loved ones, coworkers, waitresses and ourselves without thinking about what we really mean.
It’s a phrase that stands in for a range of ideas and emotions. It can express confusion, disinterest, open-mindedness, awkward admiration or malicious intent.
At best, using a phrase with such an unclear meaning is pointless. At worst, it results in miscommunication and conflict. Which is why you should make up your mind to stop saying “I don’t care” and say what you really mean instead.
“I don’t care” doesn’t mean you’re easygoing and polite
I took a road trip from California to Vermont in a borrowed Honda Civic with my friend Cory. As we were crossing into Arizona, he asked me what I wanted to have for lunch.
When I answered, “I don’t care,” he slammed on the brakes and pulled over.
“I don’t care means fuck you,” he said. “Show some goddamn courtesy and give me an answer.”
We talked our way across the country on the trip, but that one little exchange is the only thing I can remember.
At the time, I thought he just wanted me to find a cheap taco place. But in the years since, I’ve learned over and over again he was right in a way that was more universal than lunch. And I’ve learned not to say “I don’t care” when I really mean something else.
You might think you’re being easygoing and polite when you say “I don’t care.” Actually, you’re not. Not caring is an action, not a statement. It’s something you show through complete disregard. The things you don’t think about, talk about or look at — those are the things you don’t care about.
The things you talk about are the things you do care about. So in a weird reverse-twist way, as soon as you say “I don’t care,” you’re showing that the opposite is true.
It’s taken me some time to see all the ways my friend Cory was right. But time and again, I hear his words echo in my head.
“I don’t care” means a lot of other things too. Here are a few:
“I don’t care” means “I do care a lot”
“I don’t care what people think, I’m wearing this dress.”
“I don’t care what my parents say, I’m getting a life-sized cat tattooed on my back the second I turn 18.”
When you preface what you are going to do with ‘I don’t care,’ you’re signaling that you really do care. It’s like going outside in the middle of the night to investigate that banging noise by the dumpster with a crappy little flashlight and a pen knife. You can repeat “I’m not scared” over and over, but saying it out loud doesn’t make it true.
If you really don’t care what people think, just wear the dress. Get the tattoo. The more you try to convince everyone that you don’t care, the more you’re showing that you do care.
“I don’t care” means “I’m too lazy to think of an answer”
“Where should we eat tonight?”
“What do you want to watch tonight?”
“What should we do this afternoon?”
“I don’t care…I don’t care…I don’t care.”
If someone asks for your opinion, you should show them a shred of human decency and give them better than a bare minimum response. Because if you’re a living, breathing human, you do care — at least a little — about most things.
So buck up and think of an better answer than I don’t care. This person who is asking for your input cares about you, so if you care about them, you could at least ask for them to suggest a few options for you to choose from.
Making choices is hard work. Don’t be a slacker and make other people do the work. Share your thoughts, come up with some ideas. Even if nobody wants to try the steak bomb smoothie place you recommended, at least you’re trying.
“I don’t care” means “You are about to be wrong”
“Where do you want to eat tonight?”
“I don’t care”
Later, after waiting over an hour for a table:
“I knew we shouldn’t have come here…”
Saying you don’t care and then later revealing you did care after all is the worst. If you do this, stop now. If you know someone who does this, tell them they need to stop now.
It’s a twisted mind game that can spiral into pointless arguments. Instead of giving your partner free rein to make any choice in the world, offer up any feelings or knowledge you have on the topic at hand that will help them make a decision that works for both of you.
For example, you could explain that you do really want to try the new steak bomb smoothie place, but you heard it takes a really long time to get a table on the weekends. And you could explain how you’re really hungry, so you’ll eat anything as long as it’s quick. All of this information is better than “I don’t care.” And it helps the decision-maker make a better decision. Everyone wins.
Unless what you wanted was to be right and unhappy in the first place. If so, then you get gold medal in passive-aggressive tactics. I hope your steak bomb smoothie has E. Coli in it.
“I don’t care” means “I don’t know”
“What movie do you want to go to?”
“I don’t care”
I am a hermit and I never know what movies are playing. It doesn’t mean I don’t care what movie I see. So instead of telling you I don’t care, I could tell you what types of movies I hate. Or I could spend ten-minutes watching movie trailers so I could choose something I will like. Or I could just tell you I don’t even want to go to the movies in the first place.
It’s ok to not know something. Just blurt it out and admit it. It’s better than hiding your ignorance under the guise of not caring.
Seeing a movie you don’t like isn’t a big deal. But acting like you don’t care about something when you really just don’t know about it can have serious consequences.
I work with teenagers who care a lot about their image. Not caring is cool. Not knowing is lame. Often, my students tell me they don’t care about something when what they really need is help understanding it.
The problem with this is it’s easy to walk away from someone who doesn’t care. You can tell yourself you’re not going to care if they don’t care. And without knowing it, you turn your back on someone who does need help, but can’t find a way to admit it.
“I don’t care” means “I don’t like you”
“Should we hang this framed photo of us at the water park in the living room?”
“I don’t care.”
If you find yourself telling someone you don’t care over and over again, it probably means you don’t like them very much. Care equates to effort, and we put effort into people we like.
When you like someone — or love someone — it’s fun to make decisions together. You want to compare notes about restaurants, car loans, haircuts and more. When you no longer want to put energy into making decisions with someone, chances are it’s because you are tired of them.
Likewise, if your partner keeps telling you they don’t care, stop pretending it’s because they trust you and think you’re wonderful.
If they think you’re wonderful, they will care. And they’ll show they care by giving you input when you ask for it. People who care about you will care about the things you care about at least a tiny little bit. If they don’t, you might want to start thinking about why.
Maybe they don’t like you as much as you thought they did. Maybe the water park picture should go in the trash.
Words have meaning. They impact your relationships. Show that you care by choosing them wisely. And stop saying “I don’t care.”
I could tell you I don’t care if you found this helpful, but that’s not true. I hope I gave you some food for thought. A big fat steak bomb smoothie of thought.