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Two people are talking about what tasks should be finished on time, and what tasks should be put off until later. The conversation was like below:

A: I don't think those tasks are important. We can put it off for a month. Let's focus on the remaining tasks, they are the most important!
B: Hang on. If we don't finish those tasks, some customers will not be satisfied with our software.
A: How many users?
B: Roughly 200 - 300.
A: 300? Who cares? It is less than 0.001% of all customers we have. Let's focus on 99% and we will deal with those 300 later.

The second situation is about culture — picking your nose.

A: Why are you picking your nose in public?
B: I have boogers in my nose.
A: You should go to a restroom and do whatever you want. It's socially unacceptable.
B: Who cares?

In these contexts, is saying "who cares" impolite or rude? Does it show your ignorance or bad behavior?

Is saying "who cares?" OK or commonly used in everyday conversation?

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It's dismissive and egotistical. I don't know whether I'd call it impolite or rude. Better to say I don't really care to indicate that it's not important to you because you're a closet sociopath. :-) –  user21497 Dec 2 '12 at 11:24
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The expression is not impolite per se, but it is hardly ever found in a context where the intention is anything but rudely dismissive. –  Kris Dec 2 '12 at 12:25
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Whatever....... –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 2 '12 at 17:02
    
The subjunctive (or is it conditional?) "would/could/should" can frequently be used to soften a turn of phrase -- i.e., instead of "who cares?" say "who would care?" It carries the same underlying sentiment ("I don't think it matters..."), while subtly converting the dismissive, rhetorical question into an actual question inviting a response ("...and would you agree?") –  michael_n Dec 2 '12 at 19:34
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@jwpat7: code4eight knows the math, he/she is presenting a rude person who is mathematically challenged very accurately. Likewise, one of the people in the second conversation is anatomically anomalous. –  Mitch Dec 2 '12 at 20:57
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9 Answers 9

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The statement "Who cares?" is often seen as extremely rude and even arrogant. Let's look at a more specific case: consider George W. Bush's response to journalist Bill Hangley at a press event in 2001:

Because I had serious misgivings about the president’s performance to that point, my own involvement in the whole operation had left me feeling a bit like a pseudo person, so when I had the chance to shake Bush’s hand, I said, “Mr. President, I hope you only serve one term. I’m very disappointed in your work so far.”

His smiling response was swift: “Who cares what you think?”

This is a very small thing for a man in a position of importance to say. Although Hangley had criticized the president to his face, a man who was more sure of himself might have replied generously, even magnanimously: "I'm sorry you feel that way," perhaps, or "I am doing my best to change your mind." That sort of thing. Instead, what came out was rude to the point of arrogance. It is the statement of someone in power to someone who is powerless.

Granted, "Who cares what you think?" is more specific and pointed, but the general "Who cares?" amounts to the same thing.

But the statement is not always rude. It may also be a weak response to an accusation:

A: You know smoking will kill you, right? Yet you do it anyway.

B: Who cares? We all have to die of something.

That usage suggests a forced insouciance, a resignation in the face of the perceived powerlessness of the person to quit smoking.

It can also be triumphant and expansive, even exultant in a way that is not at all rude:

A: The weather report is saying heavy snow is expected next week.

B: Who cares? You and I will be at the conference in Hawaii that week!

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good answer, this covers many more nuances of the phrase than the others attempt to. –  RoundTower Dec 2 '12 at 16:27
    
I reckon the second example could still be taken as rude, since the fact that A brings the matter up suggests that A has an opinion, and B's use of the expression suggests that either A or A's opinion does not count. Even so, this is an awesome answer. +1. –  user867 Dec 4 '12 at 7:27
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It is commonly used in everyday conversation, and in most uses it is disrespectful to somebody (not necessarily the person spoken to).

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There's also a more disrespectful variant, "Who gives a [expletive]?" –  Dan Dec 2 '12 at 16:16
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In the simulated conversations the person saying "Who cares?" is doing so to dismiss an otherwise legitimate criticism that the second person is offering. This is in itself impolite or boorish. Since the conversations appear to be between intimates, the use of the phrase "Who cares?" is not in itself a sign of impoliteness. In formal encounters, however, it is to be avoided.

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"an otherwise legitimate criticism" I'm not sure I agree with that; if the issue does really affect only 1% of their users, I'd probably dismiss the issue as well. –  Andy Dec 2 '12 at 16:28
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I echo Andy's thoughts. If it's really only 1% of customers, then, for that case, I interpret "Who cares?" as being a shortened euphemism for "Let's focus on the big picture." It might be a rude or careless thing to say if those stakeholders were in the room, but if it's just those two coworkers, then who cares? The language conveys the point just fine. –  J.R. Dec 2 '12 at 18:21
    
Mm, I reckon it would depend on what the software was for - if it was, for example, used to detect early warning signs of pacemaker failure, customer dissatisfaction might actually be a result of a potentially fatal problem. Admittedly, it's not likely, but my point is that it might be rude. Maybe. –  user867 Dec 4 '12 at 7:31
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"Who cares?" means rhetorically "It doesn't matter". It is more informal than the latter.

In your first example, The speaker who uses it is trying to say that the particular number doesn't matter because it is so much smaller than the what it is being compared to that it is negligeable.

In the second example, the speaker is trying to say that his nose-picking doesn't affect anybody.

Pragmatically, the phrase is short in the direction of being rude, but is not nearly in the 'slappable' scale. It is not ignorant to use, but because of its informality, might be considered an unthought-out reaction. In both examples, a more thoughtful response would be less confrontational. "Booger-picking doesn't compromise the health of other people, so I'd prefer to save time and effort by doing it here and now".

The distinction I'm trying to draw is that one might say "I am terribly sick" and if the response is "It doesn't matter", then that would be considered pretty rude.

In the end though, "who cares?" is often used confrontationally. It is nowhere near as rude as an epithet, and can be just as rude as a statement of facts. Hoever, you are right that there is some bit of negative affect to the usage.

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I don't think the speaker in #2 is trying to say his nose-picking doesn't affect anybody. If that's what he meant, he'd say "Nobody cares" (or something like "Nobody should care". I think "Who cares?" always means "I don't care" - often with an implied ("...and probably no-one else does either"). Thus in OP's example #2 the I trumps that second possibility, so he can only mean he doesn't care whether other people care or not. –  FumbleFingers Dec 2 '12 at 16:26
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In the way you are describing it, its usage varies, from bluntly honest to rude and careless. I have never heard it used politely.

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It is sarcastic and caustic.

Whether it is impolite and disrespectful would depend on the situation and relationship between the mutual communicants. However, being sarcastic, it will have an object of scorn in any situation - as illustrated in the following hypothetical situations.

Case 1: Object of scorn = PotUS

PotUS: AlQaeda is slipping into the US thru the UK.
PMoGB: Who cares.

Case 2: Object of scorn = the stupid stain

Your GF: Oh sh--enandoah, I've stained my dress with such a lovely wine.
Duchess of Cambridge: Who cares. Let's pretend it's not there.
Your GF: Yes, who cares.
I'll certainly keep this chateau margaux stain as a vintage souvenir.

Case 3: Object of scorn = someone who originally said about the 47%.

Chris Christie: Someone said 47% will never change their mind.
Who cares? I do. I do care for that 47%.
His supporters: {cheering}

Case 4: Object of scorn = public safety

Lindsay Lohan: I am getting arrested too many times a day.
Paris Hilton: Who cares. Let's have a party.

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Nice breakdown. Just an extra 2 cents: I don't think it's always "sarcastic" per se; I think a better word might be "rhetorical". ("Who cares?" is a rhetorical question, essentially saying, "It's not really that big a deal, is it?" – especially in Case 2). –  J.R. Dec 2 '12 at 23:07
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When, "who cares" implies "I don't care." It's rude because it doesn't validate the other person's point. Since it is typically used rhetorically, it implies "everyone" agrees with you and "no one" agrees with the other person, and offers no real chance for a discussion.

"Who cares" can also be used more sensitively to mean "nobody cares" or "why do you care?" when trying to help someone not take a situation too seriously-- as in the example below in the comment by JR.

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What you said might often be true, but I don't think it's always the case. For example, if my daughter was disappointed because someone made a hurtful remark, I might console her with, "Who cares what he said?" That wouldn't be uncaring or rude, nor would it be the end of the discussion. –  J.R. Dec 3 '12 at 17:32
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Robusto's response is fantastic and very informative, but I noticed that it failed to answer your question directly in relation to the two scenarios you shared. So, let's see...

In the case of the first conversation, "who cares?" is used in a way that is to my mind reflective of a dismissive, arrogant, and disrespectful disposition. And it's unprofessional to say the least. The fact that you came here in the first place to ask about it already implies that this phrase was used in a manner that made you uncomfortable, which would be consistent with my assessment. I would say that your discomfiture is warranted. I myself would be wary of someone who expresses himself this way about the needs and concerns of clients in a professional environment.

He could have said something like, "We don't have the resources to address the needs of 300 clients. They're going to have to endure for now. We'll revisit this issue if and when those resources become available." But this requires a little more patience, a bit more intellectual cohesiveness, and a degree of respect for both the clients and those present. The dialog you've shared lacks all of these. So there's that.

In the case of the second dialog, "who cares?" implies a complete lack of concern for certain social mores. It also implies a lack of concern for what others think, feel, or believe about this particular behavior. He wants to be free to pick his nose without being bothered about it, so he very clearly states his position so as to cut-off any further debate, "Who cares?" That is to say, "You're the only one that seems to care, so I'm not about to change what I see as a perfectly innocuous behavior just for you." So, the use of the phrase in this particular context means he wants you to back off and drop the subject. It's not open for discussion. He'd rather you look the other way if he's got his fingers up his nose rather than watch you make faces, look horrified, and tell him where and when he should have his fingers up his nose. It's possible that he has dealt life-long with tormenting sinus issues that have ultimately driven him leagues beyond caring what people think about where, when, and how he deals with his sinuses.

This does not necessarily imply arrogance or disrespect--he may be quite the team player and he may otherwise show respect to his peers. He may deal with a concern such as that posed in the first dialog that demonstrates a degree of respect. On the other hand, the speaker in the first dialog may be horrified to be caught with his fingers up his nose and immediately rush off to the bathroom without another word.

So both uses of the phrase imply a degree of disregard, but in very different ways. The first is a clear breach of professionalism while the latter is more the result of a clash of cultural and/or personal values.

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Would probably only use "who cares" with subordinates, and not with people ranked higher than me in the workplace. Using with leadership is a little "turnoffish".

Its use also reflects arrogance, so be careful.

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