What About Why

by Ben Perreira

1. Why do you love tacos?

2. What about tacos do you love?

These two questions are basically asking the same thing, except one is much easier to answer. Which one? I’ll answer in a minute.

But first, I’d like to explore the importance of semantics. I love words and am fascinated by their power.

If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language you understand how words are symbolic rather than definitive representations of concrete concepts. (An interesting and quick dive into the power of words is available here.)

In Spanish there are two forms of “to be” – one to describe a more permanent state (ser), and one to describe a more temporary state (estar). Part of learning the language is learning when to use which one. Use the wrong one and the meaning is completely different. But in English you’d say it exactly the same either way.

In French, why is pour quoi. In Spanish it is por que. The literal translation of each of those is “for what.”

That’s “for what” as in “for what reason?” or “for what purpose?” When we start thinking about why we do something we enter the realm of metacognition – thinking about thinking – something we are notoriously bad at.

Why do I love tacos? It’s hard to answer. Are you asking about how I came to love tacos? What motivates me to seek, buy and eat them?

What about tacos do I love? I love that they’re cheap, spicy, messy and full of flavor.

We (in research settings) ask questions because we’re interested in hearing any answer, but we also need to be precise with our semantics if we want the answer to be useful. When we do the thinking ahead of time we give ourselves the advantage.