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Why is "why" a toxic word?

You got to be kidding?!

At first blush, why seems like an innocent, useful word. It expresses curiosity. It may help us to learn how something works or how to do things differently and better in the future. Yes, the word why can serve these beneficial functions.

"Why" has been co-opted

Commonly, however, why has been co-opted for other purposes. Foremost, it's used to blame either ourselves or another or others.

  • "Why didn't you remember to buy that umbrella like you said you would?"

  • "Why can't you just do your homework like I asked?"

  • "Why did you have to sleep with her?"

These whys are not expressing curiosity. The speaker is not looking for information.

If why is not curious, then what is it doing?

The speaker may be looking to make you suffer like they are suffering. They may be looking for an apology. They may be looking for a justification for what they're about to do in retaliation. They might even be looking for a good reason to believe that something similar is not going to happen in the future. They may be trying to frame themselves as the good guy against you as the bad guy. And they may just be wanting to express their pain and upset and want you to hear it. Any or all of these could be the intended benefits, regardless of what costs are incurred.

But the speaker is not interested in finding out anything new that he or she doesn't think they already know. When used this way, "why" expresses no curiosity as its literal meaning suggests.

My girlfriend wanted to know "why"

One time my girlfriend asked me, "Why did you do that?" I responded lightly, "Was that a curious why or a blaming why?" She replied with a smile, "It was 20% curious." 

Why is also used to blame ourselves

  • "Why do I keep making the same mistake again and again?!"

  • "Why do I keep losing my temper with my kids?!"

  • "Why can't I be as successful as others are?!"

  • "Why do I keep ending up with losers?!"

These "whys" contain little if any curiosity.

Why is often used to blame the spirits, karma, fate, God, others in general, or the universe

  • "Why does this always happen to me?!"

  • "Why did I get the parents I got?!"

  • "Why did I end up with such bad karma?!"

  • "Why does God let the innocent suffer?!"

  • "Why do people vote for scumbags like that?!"

Just about zilch curiosity here, right? People who like to complain and gossip would feel hamstrung without the word "why."

"Why" can also be toxic because, even if it's not blaming, it's still ambiguous

I once read that a linguist had distinguished over twenty different meanings that the word why could have. The following examples will give you a sense of how questions using the word why are often ambiguous. If I asked you, "Why do you want to eat right now?", it seems like a simple question asking for a straightforward response. Maybe it is and the context will make that clear for the listener. But maybe not. Here are some possible answers depending upon how the listener interprets the word why.

  • "I'm hungry."

  • "We're not going to have time to eat later."

  • "I want to be polite."

  • "I need it for my health."

  • "My blood sugar is low."

  • "I want to avoid talking to you."

  • "It's mealtime."

  • "Evolutionary pressures designed me to want to eat in order to survive to pass along my genes."

  • "If I don't eat now, there won't be any food left later.

  • And many more...

Because "why" is such an ambiguous word, the speaker sometimes takes a big risk without knowing that they are, including when they are just asking a question of themselves, that any information provided will not satisfy the intent of their question.

How I ask "why"

In most cases, I will substitute other words for the word "why" to better satisfy my intent. For example, instead of asking "Why did you feel guilty?" I will ask, "What benefits were you trying to get for yourself by feeling guilty in that circumstance?"


The first question is likely to lead nowhere fast. The second question will more likely provide useful information quickly.

Beware of why

"Why" is a toxic word. Use it carefully and sparingly. Freshen up your mouth and clean out your ears. How you listen to toxic words can be just as toxic as when speaking them. 

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