Why Do We Always Do it This Way?

Written by on September 25, 2015 in Personal Accountability with 42 Comments

why do we always do it this wayQuestions. You know how I love them. I’ve written about the thought provoking and motivational side of questions that cause us to think about our purpose, dreams and future. Then there are questions about why people do the things they do … especially to each other.

Among my favorite questions are those that for the most part have no logical answer, but they make us smile and sometimes even prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously.

For example have you ever wondered …
  • Who was the first person to look at a cow and say “I think I’ll squeeze these dangly things here and drink what comes out”?
  • Why does Donald Duck wear a towel when he comes out of the shower, when he doesn’t usually wear any pants?
  • What do people in China call their good plates?
  • Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?
  • If the professor on Gilligan’s Island can make a radio out of coconut, why can’t he fix a hole in a boat?
  • Why are they called stairs inside but steps outside?

Sometimes questions are more important than the answers. ~Nancy Willard

There is however one question in particular that has a way of triggering an emotional response ranging anywhere from puzzled silence to extreme irritation, and on occasion, jaw-dropping revelation.

Why Do We Always Do It This Way?

Let me give you an example by sharing a classic story about following the trail of this simple “Why?” question.

There’s an old Thanksgiving story about a man who asks his wife why she always cuts the end off of the ham before cooking it. She says, that’s how I was taught – my mother has always done it that way. So at the first opportunity the man asks his mother-in-law why she always cuts the end off of a ham before cooking it. She looked at him, her response tinged with irritation at being questioned, says “Well, my mother always did it that way. It was good enough for her, and it’s been good enough for my family all these years.”

Undeterred and now on a mission, sometime later the man spoke to his wife’s grandmother and asked about her ham cooking method. She laughed and said, “Well, you know when the kids were young I had such a small stove and the only pan that would fit in it was too small for a whole ham, so I had to cut the end off just to be able to fit it in the pan.”

Sometimes asking the “Why?” question is simply an effort to understand, and sometimes it’s about challenging assumptions, both of which are healthy behaviors. Unfortunately, getting answers to our question is not always easy, particularly when dealing with organizational structures that are founded on a tradition of policies and procedures, or with those who view your question as challenging their authority.

Take the attitude of a student, never be too big to ask questions; never know too much to learn something new. ~Og Mandino

Ever Had One of These Responses to Your “Why” Questions?

Following are few typical responses to the “Why?” question (Followed by a pretty good assumption of the associated internal commentary.). And if you think these are made up, think again my friend. In fact, #4 is the response I received to a “Why do we do it this way?” question from a previous manager.

  • We’ve just always done it this way. (And I never even thought about it before, but I’ll die before I admit that to you.)
  • Good question …I’ve never asked it but I’m sure there’s a good reason. (As much as your question disturbs me I refuse to admit that out loud.)
  • Look I’m up to my eyeballs here, why are you bothering me with petty things like this? (The way we do things is good enough for everyone else, why isn’t it good enough for you?)
  • No clue, but it’s working fine so forget it. We don’t like having to waste time on things that don’t add to the bottom line. (And right now I really don’t like you very much either.)
  • You obviously need more work to do if you have time to sit around questioning how we do things around here. (For heaven sake, can’t you just do what you’re told like everybody else?)

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. ~Thomas Berger

Maybe, you’ve entertained one or more of these internal responses yourself after being put on the spot with a “Why?” question. Hey , it’s human nature, and to be fair it’s important to make the distinction between a question that is asked because someone genuinely wants to understand how and why something is done the way it is; and repeatedly asking questions simply to get attention. A little harsh I know, but it happens.

The truth is when you look around, whether it’s work or in your personal life, you’ll probably find many processes that are done “Because they’ve always been done that way.” And of course not all habits and routines are bad; without them we would have to consider every action we take as if we were doing it for the very first time.

The real value of questioning why we do things the way we do is to periodically challenge the status quo … and that includes our own assumptions, habits and rituals. At the very least when you ask (or answer) one of these questions you may learn something new of value. For example, maybe the process is perfectly relevant, but certain information isn’t as readily available as it should be, or maybe the process really is outdated.

You’ll never know until you ask the question … Why do we always do it this way?

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living  click here.

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  1. April says:

    I love reading your post. Thanks for sharing this. Very inspiring. A lot of us are doing this because we love that person. :)

  2. sherill

    Hi, Thanks for sharing a very interesting post. I guess asking good questions can help us find better answers, but don’t make life complicated as it is. I really enjoyed your post. Great Read!
    sherill recently posted…The #1 Reason to Have a MentorMy Profile

  3. Marquita — a number of years ago I facilitated a problem solving session for a company. They couldn’t figure out why they weren’t growing when a competitor was going gang busters. They felt they had to add more sales people to address the problem. After some digging and discussion, we discovered they had enough sales people. They just didn’t have enough TRAINED sales people who knew how to sell. But the company just kept sending their sales people out and getting their reports, like they had always done. It was a revelation to them.
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted…How Could You Cheat on Us Like You Did, Volkswagen?My Profile

    • Thank you for sharing your story Jeannette this is a great example! And to take it one step further I think we forget sometimes that training applies nearly as much to the support staff. Back when I was still a road warrior for a local hotel here in Maui the sales team were all tucked away for the day for a marketing meeting and the secretary for sales & marketing was with us taking notes. At the end of the meeting as we were starting to pack up in a very off handed way she said kind of laughing, “You know I don’t really understand “why” you all travel or what you actually do out there, would you mind explaining it to me?” You could have heard a pin drop as we all looked at each other and realized if our own secretary – our eyes and ears to the world – didn’t understand what went into filling the rooms then the rest of the hotel staff sure didn’t either … more importantly that meant then didn’t understand how important their role was in the whole process.

      That one “why” question sparked a huge initiative that started with a dog and pony show we performed for at the next monthly employee luncheon to illustrate what went into “selling” a hotel room and went on to our actually taking line employees on a series of road trips with us over the course of the next year. It was truly amazing what that did to employee morale – which was already pretty good to begin with – and by the end of it they all knew well and truly how important every single employee in the hotel was. I love “why” questions! Thanks so much for taking the time to share. :-)

  4. Arleen

    Why is a great word to start a connection with a person. When we sell a product to a customer, we ask them why they wanted the product. Not to be annoying, but it helps to understand what their needs are. If we get a question like why did you use the font we chose for example. We are able to explain to the customer that it easier to see. Without asking why we are not able to understand our customer’s needs. Enjoy your post.
    Arleen recently posted…New Google Logo and How an Updated Logo Reflects Your BusinessMy Profile

  5. William Rusho

    I do not mind questioning things, it is a way we learn. I do have an issue in changing things, just for the matter of change.
    Sometimes, as my mother would say, “Leave well enough alone”
    I did not understand her then, but now I am older I do. Things will change over time, by themselves, there is no reason to make it go faster. If something is working, leave it be. Working things, do not need to fixed, save that for the things that are broken, and there is a lot of them.

    • Not a change maven huh William? Many people are not so you surely are not alone in that regard. I will admit I tend to lean the opposite direction but we each must find our own path after all that’s what life is all about. Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by and share your thoughts – always appreciated. :-)

  6. krystle cook

    I LOVED this. My son is big into asking why as most kids are. It can be hard to come up with an answer to somethings. Those type of questions usually get “I don’t know” or “just because”.
    krystle cook recently posted…Tips for Determining if Your Child is Sick or Faking ItMy Profile

    • So glad you liked it Krystle, and I completely understand the situation with your son! Kids are masters when it comes to curiosity – ah, if only we could retain a little more of that as we grow into adulthood, huh? :-)

  7. JeriWB

    I’ve been wondering about the whys a lot lately, mainly because I now live on my own. We get so used to routine, but then that routine gets overturned a bit, and makes us wonder about why we do what we do in a certain way. I’m breaking so many ingrained habits lately, and all I know is that it feels pretty dang good.
    JeriWB recently posted…#AuthorInterview: W.A. RushoMy Profile

    • Well said Jeri. I recall the first year after my divorce going through a period where I questioned everything and made a lot of changes. As you said, “It felt dang good.” Thanks for contributing to the conversation – always appreciated!

  8. Dana

    Hi Marquita,

    It’s funny…you write about so many of the things I’ve written, or at least thought about. While I know I found your blog through Donna’s blog, I still don’t think it’s any accident that I stumbled across your work.

    Your example/story about the ham…I’ve heard this. It showed up for me sometime after I realized the value of questioning my own thoughts…and coming to terms with my own conditioning.

    It started a new journey for me, a very interesting one at that – and one I am so grateful for.

    I think many of us spend a lot of time trying to find answers to life…when an even more effective way to go about this is to start asking better questions, and more of them.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post :)
    Dana recently posted…Some of My Favorite Quotes About ImaginationMy Profile

    • So glad you enjoyed the post Dana, and especially happy that you made your way here from Donna’s blog. I couldn’t agree more with your point about asking more questions. I’ve always had a need to understand the BIG picture of things, a characteristic not always appreciated by former employers I’m afraid, but certainly works for me now that I’m on my own. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insightful observations!

  9. Kathy Andrew

    What a great post – we are such creatures of habit that we often never think to challenge our own ways, let alone have the **** to stand up and challenge someone else’s. The status quo is a very easy place to waddle around in, but sometimes we just need to spread those wings and fly right on out of there. Good to “see ” you again Marquita:-)
    Kathy Andrew recently posted…Lack of fREADom Sucks…No More Banned #BooksMy Profile

    • Hey Kathy – welcome back! So glad you enjoyed the article and love the image you create with your reference to waddling around in the status quo. I can pretty much guarantee that’s going to be waddling around in my head for the rest of the day. :-)

  10. Susan Cooper

    Boy can really relate to this. When I started teaching, I wondered the why some of the rules existed. They seemed so outdated and unproductive. I’ll never forget my principal;s response; “That just the way we’ve always done it.” The good news is he encouraged me to find new more productive ways to do what I needed to do for my charges. :-)
    Susan Cooper recently posted…Homemade Chocolate Ice Cream: #RecipeMy Profile

    • Oh I can imagine Susan. Two of my best friends are teachers and they’ve shared some stories with me about dealing with the department of education and what it takes to change things. I’m glad you principal was more forward thinking! Thanks for taking the time to share and contribute to the conversation – always appreciated!

  11. Beth Niebuhr

    It’s definitely one of my pet peeves – people who answer a question with the old “because that’s how I was brought up” or “because we’ve always done it that way. It’s a good sign that the person isn’t very interesting and I aways notice it and look in a different direction for someone I would like to get to know better.

    • I hear you Beth and I think you’re assessment about lack of interest is accurate in many cases. There is another issue that comes into play when this happens in business and that’s not wanting to rock the proverbial boat. I worked for a supervisor once who made it abundantly clear “why” questions were not welcome and even when we line managers had problems she refused to do anything that would ruffle the feathers of upper management. Worst job I ever had, but on the positive side it was the catalyst for finally going out on my own. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  12. Erica says:

    My favorite WHY anecdote has to do with my first years in college. I went to Connecticut College (small liberal arts school), and I always felt like I was wasting my time waiting for my life to begin. I wanted to be an actress and I would all the time ask my mother why I needed to go there when what I was learning had nothing to do with my goals. My mother would always dismiss my concerns by telling me that Estelle Parsons went there and she was a great successful actress. Well, the summer after my sophomore year, I was so lucky as to stage manage a production as an apprentice with a theater and Estelle Parsons was in the show. So I asked her about Connecticut College and why she went there. Here answer: “Oh, I hated that school. I used to cry to my mother that I wanted to be an actress and this was a waste of my time. But my mother said to get the degree and then I could do what I wanted.” I ended up leaving my college to the horror of everyone, carving my own path and I now have a Master’s degree, doing it in the way that felt right for me.
    Erica recently posted…From No Time to Cook to Master ChefMy Profile

  13. Donna Merrill

    Hi Marquita,

    Another thought provoking post! I love the analogy you have given about the Thanksgiving ham.

    I think I’m a born why person. Since I was a kid I would always ask why and sometimes get the answer “Y is a crooked letter” Hows that for being annoying lol.

    To this day why is an important factor in life. Even purchasing anything from shoes to an e course I often ask why.

    Donna Merrill recently posted…It’s Not What You Say, But The Way That You Say ItMy Profile

    • Yes I can see that in you Donna because you’re so good about exploring different topics and learning new skills. The “Y is a crooked letter” comment sounds like something my late grandmother would have said … and that would have come right before she booted us out of the house because she hated kids. Lovely woman. Thanks for sharing Donna, always value your insights. :-)

  14. Like Doreen, at one of my corporate jobs nothing (including 90% of the people) had changed in 20 years. Enter the new HR person who (like Jacquie) never grew out of the Why stage of being kid. It took me years and all the patience I could muster to change those things that truly required changing.

    That said, it’s also fun when–in particular–my siblings look at me like I’m daft and ask: Rosemary, why are you continuing to do that? Stop being stubborn and try something new. Oh duh.

    Good post!
    Rose M Griffith recently posted…The Chaos of FamilyMy Profile

  15. Lenie

    Marquita, I loved the story of the ham and why it had always been done that way.
    Parents are great at answering that question with – because that’s the way it’s done. We seldom stop to ask why ourselves. Think how much smarter we would be if we only asked the children how they would do it.
    Great post.
    Lenie recently posted…Comment on Baking Soda: 40 Best Cleaning Tips by LenieMy Profile

    • So glad you liked it Lenie! Great point about asking kids how they would do things in fact while the “why” lessons may differ in some ways, I think there is much we can learn from people of all ages. One of the most amazing women I’ve ever known was my late grandmother-in-law who was 105 when she passed. She and her parents actually crossed the country in a covered wagon and oh I could sit for hours and listen to her stories and it would just send my imagination reeling!

  16. Sabrina Quairoli

    This is wonderful! Many if not all of my residential and small business clients love that I ask lots of questions when we work together. Why do you do it that way? Why are you keeping that item? Does the item need to be kept? Many of them have never asked themselves these questions so it is refreshing that a stranger does. They love that there is a fresh eye on their process or their stuff. I also enjoy it. Just imagine if we asked more why questions, where would this world be today. Thanks for sharing.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Narrow Linen Closet Storage OptionsMy Profile

    • Great point Sabrina, some people do get uncomfortable being on the receiving end of “why” questions, but as you’ve found with your clients, there is a lot to be said for looking at things with a fresh perspective. Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation. :-)

  17. Phoenicia

    I am a born questioner. I agree that you can tweak your questions in order to receive a particular answer.

    As for people doing things as they have aways done, it offers no progress.
    Phoenicia recently posted…Social media – is it taking over our lives?My Profile

  18. I can really relate to this post, Marty. when I started my first full-time job, I challenged the supervisor about some of the rules she had for us staff. Without even giving my suggestion for change a thought, she replied, “I can see you’re a real sh*t disturber, Doreen.” and indicated that we were going to continue doing things the way they had always been done. I got out of that department as assn as I was able.
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…bronze sculptures of the maleconMy Profile

    • Ouch! I wish I could say I can’t relate to your experience but as I referenced in the article I “been there done that” and like you I was out of there at the first opportunity. Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation.

  19. Catarina says:

    Agree with you completely about the importance of asking why. How can people, companies and society as a whole grow if we don’t question what we are doing. Constantly base what we do on the past works against progress. And still society, organisations and people mainly function that way. It’s a bit better if they at least have a discussion or try to understand why for instance the person says what he/she says. It’s much better though to listen with an open mind, heart and self. That way you are open to possibilities that you will otherwise ignore. Would there for instance be an Airbnb and Uber today if the founders just looked to the past for answers and solutions?
    Catarina recently posted…How do digital companies succeed?My Profile

    • Well said Catarina and you’ve posed some great questions yourself. I think the key is as you referenced having the ability to keep an open mind and try to understand … but then if all people cultivated those characteristics the world would be a very different place. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  20. Yeah, I was always that annoying kid who always asked why and now I’m the annoying adult. I feel if my curiosity dies, then so will I! Processes can be streamlined with technology, for sure. But sometimes, tradition has value… like why do we always have a live Christmas tree? Maybe, in some instances, we’ve gotten too caught up in the shiny and new and forgotten the value of old and tired and true.
    Jacqueline Gum recently posted…A CROOKED GOLDEN RULE… WHERE’S THE JUSTICE?My Profile

    • Excellent point Jacqueline. I don’t believe that questioning a process necessarily means changing it for the sake of change, just making sure there’s some rhyme or reason behind it. In fact your reference to the live tree and Christmas traditions is a great example and I actually wrote about how how many of them came to be in my Christmas by Design book. Thanks for sharing, Jacqueline always value your insights.

  21. Linda Ursin

    If we’re to learn anything new, questioning the old is essential. Otherwise we’d still be living in caves.
    Linda Ursin recently posted…Get ready for a creative OctoberMy Profile

  22. Sue Kearney

    So…. my tai chi teacher would stop my why questions and tell me, don’t ask me why, ask me how.

    This has been a very useful lesson. Try it.

    Blessed be!
    Sue Kearney recently posted…Notes from the center of retreat. Retreat to center.My Profile

    • Interesting perspective Sue, and having studied cultural philosophy of indigenous peoples I understand the point, but “How” is defined as meaning in what way while “Why” refers to the purpose behind doing something. One may eventually get to the point by saying “How do we always do it this way?” but it surely will be via the scenic route. :-) Thanks so much – always love your thoughtful contribution!

  23. Patricia Weber

    Marquita indeed WHY is such a powerful question when we have an open mind to what we might hear in the answer. I remember a salesperson once asking, “Why do we have all these copies for a customer receipt?” It lead to redesigning the form (why not since we managers realized the value in the answer) which reduced the cost of creating the form. We had no used for 2 of the copies of the 5 since about 6 months previously the accounting processes were streamlined.

    Loved this post.
    Patricia Weber recently posted…Staying focused, brain on technology, smell the roses, introvert in graphs #Blog Round-up from #introvert inspirerMy Profile

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