The Problem With “Whatever You Want”

A woman looks at her husband and asks something like:

  • Where should we go for dinner?
  • Do you think we can afford to buy this?
  • What kind of tile should we get?
  • Should we let our kids go to this party?
  • What kind of car should we buy?

The husband smiles and says calmly, “Whatever you want is fine.”

Maybe he wants to be flexible and easygoing, or maybe he has no preference, or both. He may even feel that, by offering her maximum freedom, he has given the best possible answer.

In a few cases, that may be true. But the vast majority of the time, “Whatever you want” is a lame answer, even a terrible one.

Here’s why.

First, it assumes that she has a preference in the first place. But she may have no strong feelings about what to do – she may even feel totally lost. If so, “Whatever you want” signals that she’s going to remain lost, and furthermore, you have no plans to help her with that.

Even if she has a strong preference, the answer is still problematic because it dumps the decision-making responsibility on her. She has to weigh the options and pick the best one. If the decision is wrong, she (and perhaps you) will feel that it was her fault. Rather than offering to share the weight of that responsibility, you have effectively told her to carry it alone.

Furthermore, because she is not completely selfish (we hope!), she would like to take your feelings into account. “Whatever you want” gives her no information about your own preferences, if any. Maybe you’re truly indifferent, or maybe you’re being polite, or maybe you’re sacrificing your wants or needs for hers. She doesn’t know.

Finally, “Whatever you want” is just a big turn-off romantically. Confidence is attractive. A take-charge attitude (not to be confused with a bossy or controlling attitude) is attractive. Shrugging your shoulders is weak sauce.

So what’s a better answer?

For starters, saying “I don’t have a preference at all” – if it’s true – is actually a better answer than “Whatever you want,” because it contains more information. It doesn’t just tell her that she can make the decision – it tells her why. This relieves part of her burden, since she no longer has to worry (as much) about making you unhappy with a bad decision.

Even better is “I don’t have a preference, but how about doing X?” Since you truly don’t care, it should be easy for you to suggest an option. This gives her a starting point, offers an option that you’re definitely okay with, and suggests that you’re willing to help with the decision-making.

What if you feel lost about what to do? Maybe you’re not clear what the options are, or you don’t understand the pros and cons, or it’s all just too complicated to get straight. Again, simply saying that you’re lost is much better and more informative than “Whatever you want.” Even better: Offer a path forward, such as “I could do some research,” or “Let me ask around,” or “Can you explain this for me?” All of these focus on turning words into action, and show that you’re engaged with the problem, although you may not know (yet) how to solve it.

Better still, be proactive rather than reactive. Don’t make her ask the question in the first place. Start a conversation: “Did you hear about that party tonight? The kids want to go, and I think that’s probably okay. What do you think?”

Or, if it’s a relatively small decision, you may not even need a conversation. If she doesn’t usually care where you eat, then rather than asking about dinner, just order takeout from Jumbo Gerald’s Bibimbap Emporium & Delicatessen. She’ll probably be fine with the food, glad to be saved a decision, and pleased that you were thinking about her. And if not? Worst case, you’re out a few bucks, and you’ll know for next time.

Plus, you’ll have bibimbap. And how could that be a bad night?

Note: I used a wife/husband relationship for simplicity, but the concepts apply just as well to husband/wife, or any other gender pairing, or all kinds of relationships.

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4 responses to “The Problem With “Whatever You Want”

  1. holy cannoli, that was quite the analysis. Given the context provided, I’m sensing a recent event may have spurred this article XD

    While some of your arguments are quite valid, I feel you place too much responsibility on the responder. The questioner is providing a very open ended, non-opinionated question…while an open ended, non-opinionated answer may not be helpful, I feel it is fully valid (and deserved, depending on the context). The questioner is essentially requesting help with a problem without providing any possible solutions. Instead, providing a more directed question to begin with could provide better results. Change “Where should we go for dinner?” to “Would you like to get Asian food for dinner?” While they can still respond with “whatever you want”, putting a solution in front of them can at least get thoughts flowing and they can also, very easily, say yes or no and counter.

    At the end of the day, much of this depends on the context in which the conversation takes place. I argued that good questions are important, but both good questions and good answers are needed for the transaction to be meaningful.

    • Not so much a single recent event, as a lot of events over time, some involving me, some involving others. 🙂

      And yes, you’re certainly right that it’s an analysis of one side of the equation only. The questioner bears part of the responsibility, and has part of the opportunity, to make the communication work better. I guess I’m thinking of situations I’ve seen where the questioner *does* offer more suggestions, ideas, etc., and still gets “Whatever you want,” but I didn’t make that clear in the text.

  2. This is remarkably self aware, Brian. Not that I’m surprised you would be. I like your advice, here, quite a bit.

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