Enjoy Asking “Why” Often In 2019!


Progression of man mankind from ancient to modern

Better late than not was our motto for the first Culture Curious Global Minds article of 2019, and we wish health, happiness and peace in the new year. 

Before you continue reading, here are the two reasons for this delay: we’re late in writing because one, 2018 left us with some new cultural awareness. We counted at least seven different ways to ask “why” in German: warum, weshalb, wieso, weswegen, wofür, wozu and aus welchem Grund. Two, we were able to dive into exploring this further with Bruce Burnside, a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Education, Columbia University with much research in Germany and Turkey.

Bruce said it’s only fitting for a word with such potential. And I say please read on because in our interconnected (shared) day-an-age which will go into history as the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, anthropological curiosity is the one key (must-do) citizen and business activity that will lead to not only exponential innovation but to exponential shared prosperity, health, competitive (free) thinking and peace.

While we only have the one “why” in English, we would do well if we remembered that our one word can be nuanced in many ways and produce many diferent kinds of results. 

“Why” is a powerful word. As parents we know it can be a key tool for our children to learn about the world around them. They learn that there is a reason to wait at a stoplight, give a hug or to eat spinach. And slowly, they stop asking this question for learned reasoning and utilize it for new learning.

Adults also realize the limits of “why”. We come to know that there are many, many things without obvious reasons. So, we utilize the question to understand and clarify. Sometimes, we ask “why” as an attack and prod for answers with force. We also know that there are times when we cannot ask why or only in certain ways. In front of a stern boss, we may feel we have no place to question a command. Pulled over by a police officer, we may only timidly question the reason.

“Why”, despite being part of our everyday lives, is a word that is worth getting reacquainted with, for it can open new worlds to us, including a reopening of our own.

A cultural anthropologist uses the word in a similar way to a child when studying a society different from her own. After all, the anthropologist may be learning the local language for the first time, as well as the customs, mores and rites of that society. Things that are so common and everyday, and which seem obvious to its members, become key ways to understand a culture. The anthropologist will ask “why” about the simplest things from why people eat this food but not that one, to why they sit at a family gathering in one order and not another or why they call upon divine help in this instance but not that one. She also knows that people often have never had the need to articulate these reasons, and may not always know/remember them. This “why” is not the demanding why of an inquisitor, but is instead asked in an open and curious manner, and commonly followed up with “Tell me more about that.”

This open-ended questioning can lead to an exploration by both parties into reasons or (or lack of reasons) that shape our everyday lives. There is also a curious effect for the anthropologist. Confronted with different ways of doing and being human, she may for the first time turn the questions on her own culture. Why do we do this and not that? There are things that may have seemed like universal truths, but are suddenly challenged by her new observations. The anthropologist Margaret Mead, in her first fieldwork in Samoa in the 1920s learned that this South Sea Pacific society did not have a concept of the angsty, rebellious teenager. There, teenagers were calm, relaxed and contented. Mead was forced to ask herself if the “typical” teenagers at home and their problems were not just the result of passage through a “natural” phase, but instead, a product of American society. New “whys” emerged: Why do we assume some things are “just the way they are”? What if new skeptical evidence allows us to learn that things do not have to be one way. What might we do differently?

Anthropology is the science of human beings.  As technology becomes a much bigger part of the human life and the business world, and as a not only welcome but also forced collaboration/sharing of information/goods/services/equity increase we see the value proposition of the anthropologist re-emerge. Stay tuned for more thoughts and expertise from Bruce Burnside and anthropologist colleagues.  Thank you, Bruce for your first contribution on the Culture Curious Global Minds Blog and we look forward to hearing much more from you.  “Please tell us more about that!”

Bruce BurnsideBruce Burnside can be reached at linkedin.com/in/bruce-s-burnside-a9173516b

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