Groupthink: Why you Should ask Why

My 6 year old son recently asked me why the word Circus is spelled with a instead of an S
I told him I wasn’t sure, expecting that he’d let it go at that. But he persisted.
“Why not just use an S? Why do we even need a C since it only makes a K or an sound?”
I had to admit I was stumped. How am I supposed to know these things?
So I explained that it may not make sense, but everyone just agrees that’s how we spell Circus, so we go with that.
With an indignant look on his face, he exclaimed:
“WELL I DON”T AGREE”
That gave me some pause.
On the one hand, I loved that reply. Here is my son boldly asserting his individuality. Screw conformity!
On the other hand, I started thinking about all the explanations I pass down to my kids without really knowing why I think the way I do. Shouldn’t I know why I believe all the things I tell them?
The Value of Why
I had an Algebra teacher that left a real mark on my life. The first day of class she spent time explaining that everything we would learn would make us better problem solvers – even if we never used the material again. And being better problem solvers would make our lives a lot easier and increase our demand in the workplace.
What a way to begin! I now had purpose rather than just routine – and even if I didn’t love the process, I could understand its value.
I wish all my teachers would have spent the first day of class explaining why we should value what they were teaching. I can guarantee I would have been a lot more focused.
Without good reasons, we’re left having to accept things like “that’s just how it is”or “you don’t need to know, just do it.”
But those aren’t reasons. Those are cop outs. And frankly, hearing those types of “explanations” sucks. There’s nothing amid those answers that offers even an inkling of inspiration.
Adult Potty Mouth
When I was a kid, my best friend’s mother was so prim and proper that any form of bad manners resulted in incredibly stern reprimands. Sitting at the dinner table one night, I witnessed his little brother accidentally let the word DAMN slip out in conversation.
By the reaction he got from his mother, you would have thought he took his fork and slammed it through the top of her hand.
None of us ever knew why it was such a big deal. What was so bad about a seemingly harmless word. Maybe there was a good reason, but no one ever told me. It seemed so ridiculous.
Profanity has always seemed absurd to me. Why did we decide words are so harmful? It’s not like getting punched in the face. We didn’t have to decide how much that sucks. It really does. But as a society, we’ve invented all these words that are so awful to utter. Well then why invent them?
I’ve got an idea. If these words are so insulting, let’s just all agree they aren’t – problem solved.
Now that I’m a parent, I can understand not wanting to hear certain words. The last thing I want to listen to is my kid discussing poop while I am finishing off a plate of meatloaf. This is a valid reason. But I can (and do) explain why to my kids, and as a result they’re not left thinking its just some stupid rule. It really is disgusting.
But isn’t knowing why a lot more sensible?
Why be Insulted?
At four years of age, my youngest son accidentally flipped off my wife when trying to show us an eleven with his hands. It was both epic and hilarious.
I mentioned how silly it seemed that anyone would get offended merely by the position of fingers on our hands. How many fights (or worse) have begun with this simple expression. Its just stupid.
But my wife disagreed. She said:
“No, its not stupid. Sometimes I need a way to tell someone to go F*CK themselves when they aren’t close enough to hear me.”
Say whaaaaa?
To clarify, my wife is a skinny shy introvert who I’ve never heard utter a mean word to anyone. There is no way she’s actually out there flipping anyone off.
But she raises a good point. There is value in having some gesture to convey this, and knowing why, I can’t argue.
But at some point, you just have to roll your eyes.
Did it really make a difference to you that I censored the F-bomb a few sentences ago? Is that little asterisk really the difference between something acceptable and something utterly offensive?
Why do we care?
Social Pressure
There’s a lot out there that we simply accept on the basis that everyone else agrees.
Why? I can only guess.
Perhaps its that most people don’t like conflict, and its easier to go along with the pack then confront bad reasons.
Maybe its just easier to accept everyone else’s ideas rather than produce any significant thinking of our own.
But there is no doubt social pressure has a lot to do with it.  People will believe things in large groups that they would never conclude in isolation.
Maybe its time to face up to fact that “because everyone agrees” isn’t enough.
Start asking Why.


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