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Monday, July 5, 2010

Why Wise

When does the plural of WHY become WISE?

@ntaleb "People are so prone to overcausation that you can make the reticent turn loquacious by dropping an occasional "why" in the conversation."

Which reminded me of a recent conversation with Kristof Dierckxsens on Twitter.

@kdierc "on asking questions ... I have used the 5 why principle successfully on several occasions"

@richardveryard "In English, "why" questions are unclear, can be interpreted as request for (i) intention/purpose (ii) cause/trigger or (iii) excuse."

@kdierc "I'm not a linguist, but I find it very handy sometimes to keep on asking why to get the real answers to some problem."

@richardveryard "I know it ought to work, but for me it often goes off in unintended directions. I'd be really interested to see a real example."

@kdierc "Maybe it's me not understanding it the 1st time I ask :-) thing is need to keep on asking, not always why, is my experience."


Kristof sees the choice of questioning as linguistics. I prefer to see it as a combination of philosophy and psychology.

Philosophy tells us that there are different categories of cause - Aristotle identified four. A WHY question can be interpreted as a request for any of these.

Psychology tells us that a WHY question can trigger a variety of rational and irrational responses, especially if the setting involves some anxiety. "Why are you doing this?" "Okay then I'll stop." "No I didn't mean you to stop, I just wanted to understand exactly how what you are doing fits into the production process." "So why didn't you ask that?"

Questions of all kinds carry a second level of meaning - what is the agenda behind this question, what are the power and status and trust relations that enable or inhibit a full and honest answer? This second level of meaning is known as metacommunication. WHY questions seem to be particularly prone to the bad effects of metacommunication. (Compare with Clean Language or X-Ray Listening.)

Repeated WHY questions can be even more annoying, especially if they are asked by a consultant who adopts the Elephant's Child style of investigation. See my post on Satiable Curtiosity. So I welcome Taleb's use of the word "occasional".

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