What are Promises?

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Do promises or giving your word (of honour) differ from simply saying you will do something? On the surface, it seems that there must be a difference as while we say we will do things, dozens of times a day, promises are a much rarer breed of statement. To answer this, we need to first understand what a promise is. The dictionary definition of a promise is “a declaration or assurance that one will do something or that a particular thing will happen” (Oxford Languages). This definition matches how we use promises in everyday life. We do not make promises except to provide a guarantee of future action. But then how is this different from the statement, ‘I will do X’?

Considering how we use promises, it seems that, in general, we must hold ‘I will’ statements to mean not so much ‘I will’ but 'I will try'. This means that when we say, “I will do the dishes”, we are really saying, “I will try to do the dishes if I can”. Conversely, when we say, “I promise to do the dishes”, we are saying, “I will do the dishes”. This would make the difference one of guarantee. A promise is a guarantee. ‘I will’ is a general statement of intent and is not a guarantee.

The problem with this linguistic system is that while we all use it when someone says that they will do something important for you and does not, it feels like they broke their word. They naturally fall back on the “I never promised” argument, yet it feels hollow. After all, they said they would and didn’t. This points to the fundamental problem with the I will/I promise dichotomy. The speaker means one thing and the listener hears another. How do we solve this problem?

It would, of course, be great if everyone could agree that ‘I will’ = ‘I’ll try” and ‘I promise’ = ‘I will’ but, frankly, this will never happen. The only person we can control is ourselves, so the solution must lie in us. Thus, we should start by consciously interpreting other people’s 'I will’s' as 'I’ll try’s' and we should adjust our language so that we treat our ‘I will’s’ as equivalent to saying, ‘I promise.’

This means, in practice, that we should seek to be clearer in our choice of language. If we are asked if we can do the dishes, instead of yes (which means I will), we should say I’ll try/I should be able to/Yes, provided nothing else comes up, etc.

By doing these simple things, we will avoid many of the misunderstandings that can so often cause discord between us. We will be seen to be more honest and reliable than before and our word will hold more weight. Furthermore, by our example, we will encourage others around us to follow suit, reducing the disagreements and arguments in our families and communities.

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