Explanation versus Justification
I had a really vivid dream recently. I was in the midst of a The 100 setting, a post-apocalyptic science-fiction series my boyfriend Enrique and I were watching at the time. I dreamt of how my team and I brought a person from a different tribe back to our camp. At the gate, the guard was angry that we were bringing him inside our camp, even though he had killed some of our people. Despite this, it was somehow important to me to keep him there, since he was on our side now and would be more helpful to us alive. I did not to argue with the guard, but brought that person in nevertheless. I think I didn’t fight him because in real life I try to practice acceptance and learn which fights to pick. A while later however, I got angry at the guard’s behaviour, so I went back and asked: “How can you judge him if you don’t know why he killed our people. Have you ever asked?”. I felt that I wasn’t so much upset with the guard himself, but with people who judge others without ever asking them why.
Often we think we know the reasons for why other people act in certain ways. However, often that is only a projection of why we would have acted like that. Without asking, we cannot know the reasons and the circumstances under which another person acted. Reasons do not excuse every act, but they certainly explain them. We may judge differently when we try putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We might still disagree, but we understand better when we know the other person’s reasons.
Because of my strong willingness to understand people’s behaviour, I don’t like phrases like “it’s none of your business”. In fact, I think I have never actually used this or similar phrases (apart from silly fights with my sister, where we just wanted to insult each other, which I regret now). In most cases, I appreciate it if people ask me why I acted a certain way, as I feel like they are expressing an interest in my point of view. I prefer to #Saywhatis, instead of hiding behind conventions about what is my business and what is theirs. Sure, there are rare occasions when I don’t feel ready to show vulnerability and would rather not answer their questions or spell out my reasons. But then I explain that or ask why the other person would want to know to make sure he/ she doesn’t have bad intentions.
Brushing somebody off by telling them it’s none of their business puts distance between you and that person. It implicitly tells the other person: “I don’t trust you” or “I don’t care about you enough to share this information.” In contrast, stating that one, for instance, would rather not talk about this sensitive topic shows vulnerability and tends to increase trust and bonding.
When somebody asks why we made a certain decision we often feel judged by the other person instead of their curiosity. This may trigger our need to justify ourselves instead of simply outlining our reasons why. Do you feel this difference between justification and explanation? Just like there is an important difference between saying “sorry” and admitting guilt, there is an essential difference between justifications with explanations. Justification implies explaining why one made the right decision, explanation just implies outlining the reasons why, beyond any judgement of whether that was a good or bad decision.
I have seen people starting their question about something that they feel “is none of their business” with “I don’t want to seem curious, but …”. Possibly this is meant to express respect for the other person’s affair and that one doesn’t intend to make an accusation. Paradoxically, often the question that follows is actually asked out of interest and curiosity. But what is so bad about being curious that we need to pretend that we are not? In my experience, when it comes to science, history and politics it is okay to be curious, but when it comes to other people’s business it is not. This feels inconsistent to me, since as an astronomer and a social scientist I am curious about the fundamental laws of the universe and human behaviour.
Asking for and giving explanations helps us understand each other better and judge each other less. This implies making sure that when we ask, we express genuine interest and curiosity rather than making accusations, but also that when we are asked about our personal business, we accept and welcome other people’s interest in our point of view.
Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 2nd June 2022