It is what it is
January 16, 2012 9:08 AM   Subscribe

When people say, "It is what it is", what do they mean? What does that mean?

Sometimes when I hear it, it seems to have an inevitability about it, as if the situation is unchangable. As a social catchphrase, it seems darker and less flippant than, "Whatever" or some of the other things we've come to say as a way of passing off something irrelevant or out of our control. But it is everywhere, and I want to understand better why people are saying it and what it means, generally, when they do.
posted by CollectiveMind to Society & Culture (58 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I understand it to mean "this is the situation that I must deal with, however much I don't like that situation".
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:10 AM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

c'est la vie!

"That's life!"; or "Such is life!" or "It is what it is!" It is sometimes used as an expression to say that life is harsh but that one must accept it.

From wikipedia.
posted by girlmightlive at 9:10 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a situation that you cannot change, so you had better discover a way to manage it.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:13 AM on January 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

It's usually a polite way of expressing the sentiment, "Nothing we can do will change the nature of X, and X will probably continue to do what it's doing for better or worse." This can indicate that X is problematic, or that X is otherwise falling short of expectations. It definitely has a sort of fatalistic bent to it -- like a shrug, but less dismissive.

For example,

Person 1: Man, I really want to like the show Bones but it can be kind of a dumb sometimes.

Person 2: Eh, it is what it is. I watch it while I fold laundry.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:13 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I prefer the expression with this add-on: "It is what it is; it can't be what it ain't" and I use it when I'm talking about sacrificing now for a long-term goal. For example:

Me: Even though I've stayed late at the office every day this week and I missed recreating last weekend too, I need to finish the next section of my thesis so I'm staying home this weekend.
Person A: Bummer. We're going to have so much fun at the lake.
Me: Eh, it is what it is [it can't be what it ain't].
posted by thewestinggame at 9:21 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's inshallah for suits. It's basically giving in to the situation as fate, and so the usual business superstitions apply. As a great man once said, "At the end of the day, the bottom line is: it is what it is."
posted by scruss at 9:22 AM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Echoing everyone else, I think of it as the present-tense version of 'Que Sera, Sera'
posted by jquinby at 9:22 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I actually use it a lot in my work. I work with legal documents that cannot be changed without a lengthy, onerous process with no guarantee of success. Oftentime I am representing people that signed off on the documents or are restricted by provincial or federal legistation but later decided (sometimes justifiably) that the agreement isn't "fair". I could spend hours with them debating what is "right" and how "someone" (usually they mean me) should somehow change the laws and legal agreements, or I can point out that we have to make an immediate decision based on the laws and legal agreements we currently have agreed to.
posted by saucysault at 9:23 AM on January 16, 2012

I don't think it's entirely fatalistic. I've also seen it used to suggest that yes, what the speaker is saying is true, but no, it isn't a very interesting observation. This could be and sometimes is because the observation in question has to do with something that can't be changed, but it could also be because the observation is simply stating the obvious.

So instead of "C'est la vie," I've sometimes seen it used more like "Thank you, Captain Obvious."

It's all context-dependent, clearly.
posted by valkyryn at 9:23 AM on January 16, 2012

I use it to mean "the situation is less than ideal/not desirable, but we must learn to work around its limitations, as it is futile to expect it to change". It's an expression of resignation coupled with acceptance.
posted by Diablevert at 9:24 AM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Tag-on question: this phrase has risen to huge prominence in the last few years - I never heard anyone say this until around 2006ish, and now I hear it from lots of people in lots of walks of life.

Did its recent rise come from a TV show, movie, etc?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:25 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's usually used in the negative sense -- like "this is not the ideal situation, but it is the situation that exists." It's a way of expressing your dislike while showing that you are able to observe your environment.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:26 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a way of saying, "I don't have anything intelligent to say about this so I'll put forth a vaguely philosophical-sounding statement to kind of sound smart and then maybe we can move on to a topic I have something to say about."
posted by entropone at 9:27 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree that it refers to acceptance of an unchangeable fact of life, but further to the point that judgement of such facts is pointless and a waste of time. "It is wrong" or "it is unfair" make no sense when you can do nothing about it: wrong or right "it is what it is" and we must learn to live with it.
posted by Jehan at 9:27 AM on January 16, 2012

I have heard geeky people say it when hearing others get a little too excited about an app or some other gadget or digital item. "It is what it is" – this is a tool that does what it does, it isn't a solution to your whole life.
posted by zadcat at 9:28 AM on January 16, 2012

It was apparently named "sports quote of the year" in 2004.
posted by jquinby at 9:29 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did its recent rise come from a TV show, movie, etc?

For some reason, Lobster, as soon as I read your comment I had a strong sense memory of having heard it a lot on the Sopranos, but I can't get google to back me up on this. Perhaps others will fare better.
posted by Diablevert at 9:29 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I tend to hear it used as a way to compartmentalize something undesirable:

Yes, the agreement we reached wasn't great, but we don't have time to go through a revision process, so let's not let our frustration eat away at us. Let's move forward with the next steps and do the best we can with those.

Yes, the divorce is really hard on me but I don't want to dwell on that right now, let's just have a good time while we're here on vacation.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:30 AM on January 16, 2012

...though William Safire found it in print as early as 1949!
posted by jquinby at 9:31 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a tautology that's used to conclude discussion of the qualities or potential of something.
posted by clockzero at 9:32 AM on January 16, 2012

"It sucks and I can't do anything about it."
posted by Edogy at 9:34 AM on January 16, 2012

"It can't be helped."
posted by Miko at 9:36 AM on January 16, 2012

I'm guilty of saying this. Unlike what entropone suggests, I don't flatter myself into thinking that it sounds "philosophical" or smart. When I say it, what I mean is something like this:

"The current situation isn't how I'd want it to be, or things didn't turn out how I intended them to. Regardless, I'm going to deal with it and move forward."

I certainly consider it fatalistic and I usually say it with a shrug, FWIW.
posted by pecanpies at 9:39 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, on previewing, Jehan has it exactly. When I say this, it's usually in regards to something that's happened that someone could claim was unfair, wrongheaded, misguided, etc. Since it's already occurred, it's fruitless to whine about how different the situation could be had events unfolded differently.
posted by pecanpies at 9:41 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the first season of Top Chef, they had a montage of cast members saying, "It is what it is." Included was Lee Ann Wong saying, "My food? It is what it is." I don't think she was saying her food was bad or anything, just that she didn't want to go into a big talk about it. So I guess I'm agreeing with clockzero in a way; it's a saying used to preclude discussion. Although often that seems to mean discussion of negatives.
posted by BibiRose at 9:43 AM on January 16, 2012

Wow, thank you guys for finding earlier mentions:

2004 article by Gary Mihoces quotes a bunch of sports figures using it to say they won't dwell or linger over their losses or performance in past games. Also quotes Grateful Dead's Barlow using it in a song lyric, and GW Bush using it in Nov 2004.

2006 (Mar 5) Safire article quotes Bush's press secretary, Britney Spears, the US Olympic men's hockey coach, in 2006; notes a Billy Frolick movie (2001) and a String Cheese Incident song (2005) with the phrase as a title. Safire suggests it replaced "no comment" in politicans' speech after that phrase came to seem needlessly "gruff": "the trick to assertive deflection is in the ducking of a question in a way that sounds forthright."
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:43 AM on January 16, 2012

To me, it seems to be a pretty office-y phrase; I think I've heard it more in work environments than in conversations with friends. Probably because work is full of situations that "are what they are," and it's unprofessional to say "this shit fucking sucks" in a business meeting.

I wonder - and this is just idle speculation - whether the rise of reality TV, podcasts, blogs, social networking, etc., etc. has contributed to certain phrases catching on quickly with the public. Or maybe there hasn't actually been an uptick in usage, but we hear certain phrases more often because we're just hearing and reading more ordinary people than before.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:51 AM on January 16, 2012

From the answers given so far it looks like different people might mean somewhat different things by it, and interpret it differently when they hear it, probably based on the worldview they bring to it.

For me... well a lot of what I've learned about life over the years boils down to something like the Serenity Prayer made famous by AA:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference."

So saying "It is what it is" is a shorthand way of saying: "This is one one those things that you can't change. The best, wisest, sanest thing here is to meet this with serenity and acceptance, not railing against the inevitable and unchangeable."

Or as the The Beatles had it: "Let it Be".
posted by philipy at 9:55 AM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Was coming in to mention Top Chef as mentioned by BibiRose. Basically, the contestants had to drop everything when the timer went off, so "It is what it is" often meant, "Well, I didn't actually get it finished, but I am forced to present it in whatever shape it got to when time ran out." (And often, "and I wished I would have done something differently but I can't do anything about it now.")
posted by Glinn at 9:58 AM on January 16, 2012

We use this all the time in my law office. "Well, we can't change the facts so we better just deal with them."
posted by lockestockbarrel at 10:00 AM on January 16, 2012

just continuing my quest for the origin:
2005-2006 - first season of Top Chef is filmed in 2005 or early 2006 and aired in spring 2006.

posted by LobsterMitten at 10:01 AM on January 16, 2012

I've found it's usually said by lazy coworkers who don't want to deal with either owning up to their actions or to listen to your attempt at helping them with a solution.

For example:
"If you don't finish this task today, they (i.e. our managers) are going to be really pissed at us tomorrow."
"*Shrug* It is what it is."
", "it's" not. I'm telling you to get back to work."
*Stares sullenly*
posted by DisreputableDog at 10:04 AM on January 16, 2012

On second thoughts, "It is what it is" also has an application to situations that *can* be changed. Because often enough people's energies are directed towards fuming that "Things shouldn't be this way" rather than asking "Given where we are, what can we do?"
posted by philipy at 10:06 AM on January 16, 2012

I agree that I use it as a form of acceptance with a touch of resignation. If we are going on a journey, we have to start where we are standing right now. You need to accept the present state of things first. Maybe I can see something different that could have been done to so that it is not what it currently is, but that doesn't really help us make our next decision.
posted by meinvt at 10:08 AM on January 16, 2012

I've used this since I was a kid -- usually when something minor happens and I just have to deal with it. "Oh no, you missed your flight? That really sucks!" "Eh, it is what it is. I'll go to the service desk and change my ticket."
posted by sweetkid at 10:18 AM on January 16, 2012

entropone said it best:

"I don't have anything intelligent to say about this so I'll put forth a vaguely philosophical-sounding statement to kind of sound smart and then maybe we can move on to a topic I have something to say about."

I hate this saying. I would much prefer the ridiculous sounding, while still grammatically correct version, "it's what it's".
posted by santaliqueur at 10:20 AM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Deal with the circumstances as they are currently, because they won't be changing soon or as a result of your actions.
posted by Sternmeyer at 10:58 AM on January 16, 2012

My sister-in-law uses this expression several times a day. In her case, it means "I live my entire life in denial and if I say 'it is what it is', then I can just brush it off, keep denying it, and move on to something else, which I will also deny." It drives me completely insane and it really makes her into a completely irrational person.

I, personally, have only used the expression once because my wife was losing sleep over a situation that had nothing to do with her, it was not her business, and the people involved didn't even know that my wife existed, nor could my wife do anything about it. So, I told her "it is what it is, so get some sleep!"
posted by TinWhistle at 11:04 AM on January 16, 2012

My husband and I have occasion to use it quite a bit. That happens, you see, when you have a small business and seven employees (children? arguably) and five aging fleet trucks. We own a shop full of machines, and we're replacing them one by one with newer ones. But we can't do them all at once, so we often have to do our best with ones that are slowly dying. In my household, it is shorthand for "We are going to deal with this, to make the best of it, and we both know that we're working together to improve the situation and to buy new trucks and equipment and to build this business and to make a future together. But this, right now, is what we need to work with to make all that happen."

Owning a small business we run into problems that aren't immediately fixable -- every day, often many times each day. In my household, it's shorthand for "we'll deal with this together", because if we stopped to have a pep talk every time we had a problem we'd never get any actual work done. Hardly a pseudo-philosphical statement.
posted by mireille at 11:45 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

As with a lot of current catchphrases, it means what the person saying it wants it to mean. When I say it, I mean either "after carefully examining the alternatives, this is the best we can do," or "this isn't important enough to me to be arsed explaining it or justifying it."

I think it signals "I see the problem; I'm not arguing that there isn't a problem, but I can't or won't solve it."

I don't see it as a statement of being "in denial." In a sense, I think it's usually said by people who are NOT in denial.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:02 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's the same as "it ain't what it ain't" (or "i taint what i taint", with a short I sound). Usually it's meant in a fatalistic way, but it's usually not used for something that is terribly upsetting, just mildly annoying. It's something you might say about some stupid procedure you have to do at work that could be done in a less time consuming way if only you were allowed.
posted by wierdo at 12:08 PM on January 16, 2012

Echoing the above about being unable to change a situation. Moreover, it also seems to infer a desire for conversation to end, as further discussion will only exacerbate the problem by delaying an arrival at a solution.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:12 PM on January 16, 2012

I picked up using this phrase from Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead [1995], along with the slightly similar phrase "give it a name".
posted by blind.wombat at 12:22 PM on January 16, 2012

It describes the limit of ambition.
posted by germdisco at 12:47 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Most everybody seems to agree that the phrase reflects a situation that must be dealt with because it is out of our control. But does the phrase leave any room for changing course? I mean, does it express a kind of destiny or is it open to influence? A few people mentioned "Que Sera Sera" which speaks to a future as of yet unwritten. "Whatever will be, will be". But "It is what it is" is firmly in the present and seems to give us more opportunity to change what is in front of us, like repainting a wall, or apologizing for something stupid, or calling somebody for directions.
posted by CollectiveMind at 3:11 PM on January 16, 2012

We use this a lot at work too, but I don't see it as fatalism or absence of ambition at all; just an acknowledgement of the initial conditions of the problem and being realistic about which conditions are out of scope to change. More like "play the hand you're dealt" or "how do we get there from here", as opposed to whining about how bad your hand is, or how far away you are from where you get to. We use it focus on the workable surfaces of a problem instead of getting hung up wishing the unworkable surfaces were some other shape.
posted by ulotrichous at 3:32 PM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think "it is what it is" acknowledges that we are unlikely to be the ones that can change a situation. So it's not fatalistic in the same way that que sera sera is, but it acknowledges the reality that we can't control everything. For example, "yeah, maybe I'll be able to take more time off once we hire a new manager, but for right now it is what it is."
posted by MsMolly at 4:34 PM on January 16, 2012

does the phrase leave any room for changing course?

Well that rather depends on what your prior "course" was, and who is saying it to whom. The only times I personally hear the expression is in the context of one person trying to help another person deal more constructively with their painful situation. So it is always implicitly recommending a change of direction, if only from wallowing in angst about what should or shouldn't be to being at peace with the circumstances. And often enough being-at-peace with what's so is a prerequisite for constructively figuring out: "Where do we go from here".

But from other people's answers it sounds like the expression can also be used defensively by people to explain why they're not going to do anything different from what they are doing.
posted by philipy at 4:57 PM on January 16, 2012

Best answer: My son is involved in a couple youth sports, both involving tryouts. During the early parts of the season, some parents like to spend a lot of time complaining about the unfairness of the tryout system, or yakking about their kid really deserves to be on the A team and that other kid doesn't and doesn't it just chap your hide that Ron Swanson's kid is the goalie, you know he's best friends with the coach blah blah blah.

I use "it is what it is" in that context as a polite STFU. Tryouts have occurred. Decisions have been made. I'm not interested in sitting around trash-talking a bunch of kids. Let's, instead, talk about what we're going to do as parents to help them have the best season they can have. The team lineups are what they are. Whining will not change them.

I generally interpret it, and use it, as meaning:

"This situation may be unfair, or terrible; we may all wish really a lot that we weren't in this situation, or that things had played out differently. We may disagree on those points. We may be really mad at the entity that caused us to be in this situation, or not Regardless, the one thing we can agree on is that the situation exists. It is what it is. There's no point in discussing what it might be, or would have been, or should have been, or any other hypothetical. What now?"
posted by chazlarson at 6:13 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I tend to chew over situations in my head, inventing motives for others, imagining outcomes, obsessing over details that may or may not be relevant. When these things burble up into conversation with my husband, he very kindly tells me "it is what it is". This bizarrely has given me, I don't know, permission? to let go of the narrative I've got playing in my head. The problem may still be there, but I can only do what I can do, so I need to stop worrying about the rest. I've picked it up from him, and found it helpful in dealing with my kids (Esp my son w/Aspergers who tends to fixate) and my boss, who is a stressed out priest taking everybody else's stuff onto herself.

I have bipolar disorder, and fixating generally indicates a manic trend, so I'm very fond of this little phrase. It's become a mantra of sorts and it diffuses some of the tempests brewing in my particular teapot.

Datapoint: we live about 15 minutes away from Foxboro, so this may be a Belichik thing!
posted by Biblio at 8:31 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: But does the phrase leave any room for changing course? I mean, does it express a kind of destiny or is it open to influence?

The inflection will change depending on the circumstances, of course. But I think either of these questions miss the point of the phrase. Put it this way: You can't change course, because changing course won't do anything. The ship done hit the rock already. Whether or not it was destined to hit the rock --- whether it was fate or chance or poor decisions that were the cause --- is immaterial. The bad situation exists. So in that sense it is not open to influence. However, the fact that the ship has hit the rock doesn't mean you have to drown, also. Time to start swimming and strike out for shore and salvage what you can. "Open to influence" doesn't quite get at the sentiment, because it is what it is implies the thing which you feared has already come to pass. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's future relations with the Cratchit family and Tiny Tim's life span are open to influence. As for Scrooge's own love life, though --- it is what it is; he threw away his best chance at love 40 years ago and now he's too old to start over.

"It is what it is" implies a recognition that a bad situation exists and cannot be altered. How you react to that situation, how you deal with it, can change, but in order to do that you first have to understand that you can't go back in time and prevent it from happening.
posted by Diablevert at 8:43 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is a thought terminating cliche. It means nothing more interesting can be added to current subject so let's move on to something else to put some life into this conversation.
posted by bukvich at 9:04 PM on January 16, 2012

Although it can get used as a dismissive statement by the lazy, I have always taken it to mean "stop wasting your energies declaiming the general inequity and all-round unfairness of unchangeable circumstance blah and focus them instead on dealing with blah."
posted by fatfrank at 6:34 AM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can't stand this expression. I always want to roll my eyes and challenge the speaker: well thank you captain obvious, what else could IT be?
posted by TestamentToGrace at 8:37 AM on January 17, 2012

Testamentofgrace, I envy you for living in a world where people aren't constantly trying to spin/ignore/blame/or just plain lie about what it is, instead of being honest about what it is and swimming for shore or stopping the bleeding or whatever needs to be done.

In my world, the phrase usually means roll up your sleeves, but can be a STFU for people who do not seem inclined roll up their sleeves and learn from history.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:32 AM on January 17, 2012

Response by poster: Wow. Great answers and insight from all of you. Thanks.
posted by CollectiveMind at 6:18 PM on January 20, 2012

Reddit's r/linguistics had a discussion on 'it is what it is' and tautologies in general yesterday.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:13 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

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