Blog Entries

Don't Ask Why


Somewhere between my third and fourth trips to the bank to open a new account, it hit me. I realized why I was so frustrated. In my efforts to negotiate a system that seemed, to me, overly complicated, I had made a serious tactical error.

My frustration wasn't due just to the inconvenience of multiple trips to the bank (even though I had called ahead to find out what I would need to open the account). Nor was it due simply to all the hoops I found myself unexpectedly having to jump through.

It was really my fault. In an attempt to understand the logic behind the bank's strange requirements, I had asked, "Why?"

The smiling person who was filing out my paperwork explained that it was due to the bank's regulations. I knew that already. But I wanted to know why the bank had such regulations in the first place. Not a smart move.

Sometimes it is better not ask why. Living cross-culturally, we are bound to be confronted with situations that strike us as absurd, sometimes even offensive. In our desire to "read" the culture, why probe, seeking to discover the logic behind the absurdity. The problem is, it doesn't exist, or at least not in a way that we are prepared to receive. This realization leaves us even more frustrated than the absurdity that prompted our question in the first place.

Back at the bank, my "Why?" quickly segued into the more pertinent question of "How?"

How would I respond to the still smiling banker on the other side of the counter, who was doing her best to be pleasant despite my obvious irritation? How would I deal with the frustration that threatened to overshadow the rest of the day's activities and relationships? How would I reconcile my own sense of being "put out" with the reality that I wasn't going to change the bank's rules and, if I wanted to finish setting up my account, the most rational thing was to keep quiet and follow instructions?

As I pondered all this over a cup of hot chocolate at a nearby McDonald's, someone walked in with a t-shirt that read, "Serving meatloaf over meatballs for years."

I didn't ask.

(If I had a dollar for every t-shirt I have seen in this city that made absolutely no sense, I'd be a millionaire. But that's for another blog post.)

Here's why it's best not to ask why:

  1. You won't understand the explanation.
  2. Even if you do understand it, you won't agree with it.
  3. You don't really want to know why.

As to why you don't really want to know why?

Don't ask.

Photo Credit: WHY? by Quinn Dombrowski, on Flickr

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio