There is a Big Difference Between Can’t and Won’t

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A series of recent experiences on the customer side shed light on what I believe is a growing problem, possibly made worse by the public nature of communications – or possibly just poor grammar.

Cannot or Can’t is an expression of inability or incapacity – “I can’t take the garbage out”

Will not, or Won’t is also deliberate choice not to act – “I won’t take the garbage out”

For those of you with kids, those phrases are really quite different if they are used in response to “hey, would you please take out the garbage”. My reaction would be (has been?) very different in each case. Yes, I realize that some kids will use improper grammar and use one, and actually mean the other, so please look beyond that point.

When someone in customer service says “I cannot help you”, I believe that what they often mean is that they won’t help you. However, if those words are used, while they might be honest, they might incite a much stronger reaction. Think offering a hotel voucher due to a delayed flight, or a refund for a poor experience or some other scenario. Read between the lines of ‘ I could help, but I am choosing not to help, so I won’t’ – yeah, probably not going to fly.

The unfortunate use of “Can’t” is when a subordinate is acting as a face for a more senior person or larger organization. Is this an act of proper deflection, a way to defuse the situation? “My boss says I can’t” Which is a proxy for, my boss can, but won’t and I will get in trouble if I let you talk to him (this exact scenario happened to me last week).

This may simply be a game of semantics, but it is a bit more complicated when the social web becomes involved. I cannot think of many more examples, or maybe I simply won’t try :-)

Thoughts?

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