When I told my dad how upset I was that I had not been accepted into the college of my choice, he looked up at me and replied, “It is what it is, honey.”

I looked at him in disbelief. “Are you serious? Is that the best response you can offer me?” It drives me nuts when he uses that phrase. I told him so but he didn’t get what was so bad about it. He was just stating a fact. “It is what it is, so why go on about it and make yourself feel worse?” was his take on the matter. My take: he’s missing an empathy gene.

“It is what it is” is popping up in increasing frequency in everyday conversation. Sometimes it appears nonsensical; other times, it seems to be on target and still other times, it feels dismissive. Sometimes the phrase suggests that there’s no action to be taken when action is both possible and preferable. Let’s take a look at each one of these scenarios.

Looked at literally, “it is what it is” is a tautology. It’s a statement in which you say the same thing twice, yet appear to state two different things. Of course, things are what they are. But, it’s nonsensical unless you’re implying an underlying message. And therein lies the rub. Like the tautologies “boys will be boys” or “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” we need to be aware of the deeper meaning behind these words.

There are times when it feels helpful to be reminded that you’re driving yourself crazy over how things should have been. It’s time to put what happened behind you and figure out how to focus on the future. Two examples: “Yes, we never should have bought that stock, but it is what it is, so let’s see what we can do with our portfolio now.” “Yes, we might have had more options if you were diagnosed earlier but it is what it is, so let’s start exploring our options now.”

“It is what it is” is helpful in two cases: when it’s not an emotional issue for the person, or when she has had sufficient time to process her emotions and is ready to move on.

There are times when “it is what it is” is hurtful and dismissive of one’s feelings. The message received is “it’s not going to change, so get over it already. Stop whining. Stop complaining. Shut up and deal with it.” Even if there is truth in that statement, your timing is off (unless, of course, someone has been repeating their tale of woe forever). People need time to accept a rejection. They need to know you care that they are hurting.

We all need to complain from time to time, about major disasters as well as minor disappointments. Someone seeking an empathetic ear might say, “I can’t believe that the price of Broadway shows is so high.” You might be perceived as uncaring and uninvolved if you respond with, “It is what it is.”

There are times when “it is what it is” leads you to believe that there’s nothing you can do about a situation, when, indeed, action might be both possible and preferable. The message suggests that things are what they are. Accept it. Don’t expect things to be any different. That’s life.

Sure, there will always be senseless and tragic errors in police shootings. Does that mean that we shouldn’t take action to reduce their numbers, particularly when black men are so often the target? Sure, six million Jews were murdered during World War II. It is what it is. There’s nothing you can do about it. Besides, that was 70 years ago. Tell that to the many organizations who work tirelessly to prevent any genocide from happening today. Tell that to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the mission of which is to have people reflect on their moral responsibilities.

Communication is about what others hear, not about what you say. Hence, if you think you’ve conveyed something good but the other person hears something quite different, it’s time to recognize that “it is what it is” may not be what you think it is.


Man shrugging photo available from Shutterstock