Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Importance, or Not, of Asking Why

By Scott Adlerberg

Scott Adlerberg
Yesterday, a holiday, I went for a long walk with a friend of mine.  This is something he and I do every month or so.  He's someone, about 10 years younger than me, who I've known a good 27 or 28 years now, a guy who has been teaching a long time at a public university in New York City.  He's a fully tenured professor who got his doctorate in Speech Communications, which is the department he belongs to at his school.  It was in relation to job stuff and his experience over time on various things from grading students to conflicts with colleagues that he revealed to me, during our walk, that he has given up on asking people the question "why" when someone tells him something about themselves or about their actions that he doesn't understand or agree with.  

"It serves no purpose," he said.  "Gets me nowhere."

I realized that I've become similar in how I deal with people.  This goes especially for people at work or anyone I'm not close to.  Asking why usually accomplishes nothing other than annoying the person you're talking to; the question itself often provokes a defensive reaction, as if the person asked thinks you are criticizing their belief or thought by merely bringing up that interrogative.  I said what I said or did what I did or believe what I believe. That's enough for you. How dare you ask "why".

On the walk with my friend, I thought about how different this is than the world of fiction, where psychological and emotional understanding of people is a key part of the experience.  A writer may have the most eccentric or deluded or disturbed characters, or characters who live more or less humdrum lives without outre personality traits, and that writer does everything he or she can to make their actions understandable to the reader.  How often, in crime fiction, in horror fiction, in any sort of darker-tinged fiction, do you hear a reader say, reflecting what a certain type of writer shoots for, "I don't need to like a character as long as I can understand them."  

So this has to be yet another area, I'm thinking, where fiction serves as a counterbalance to life.  Much is made of the eternal appeal of detective stories where a figure or a team, within the limited realm they inhabit, solves a crime and thus brings a measure of order and justice to an otherwise chaotic and unjust world.  Fiction as consolation.  That's one of its greatest appeals.  And this emphasis on "why" in fiction seems related.  A person in your day-to-day life does something stupid or selfish or hurtful.  A person says something repugnant about race or expresses a political view you find abhorrent.  They sound off on social media with disinformation and hostility.  Someone at work goes about their business in such and such a way, clearly not helping the overall process.  Do I really need to know the "why" behind their actions or speech?  I don't.  In regular life, with too much to do and not enough time to do it in, where most transactions of any kind are about a result that needs to get done, bringing up "why" puts a kink in things.  Occasionally, the question helps, it fosters a meaningful conversation, but those times are the exception.  I'm less concerned about a person's motives than in doing what needs to be done in whatever is the most beneficial way, the most effective way, with that person.  For a deep dissection of the "whys" that compose another human being, people I like and those I find disagreeable, even horrible, I go to fiction.  It offers that interest and solace.  It is the great playground for the exploration of motive.

No comments: