Yesterday, my partner asked me if replying “Why?” to a (simple) request or statement is considered aggressive to normal people.
Simply put: a “why” is often a request for justification, not an explanation.
As with anything, not only are the words important; inflection is key. A downward or flat inflection indicates a period at the end, while an upward inflection indicates a question. Short or single word responses can easily come off as overly defensive or aggressive if followed by a downward or flat inflection.
– “My hobby is collecting bugs.”
delivered with a downward or flat inflection, the why sounds judgmental to
normal people and implies disapproval. Now they need to justify what they just
If it were delivered with an upward inflection, the why could sound inviting and imply interest.
– “Can you clean the table?”
In this case,
it’s a simple request or question. Normal people do not expect a question in response
to a request/question. This automatically implies hesitation or refusal.
This is even furthered if delivered with a downward or flat inflection. In that case, it comes off as arrogant, aggressive or even hostile.
Even an upward inflection will seem strange to a normal person, as it is still an unexpected response. This will most likely leave them confused or baffled by the response.
As the goal is not for them to justify themselves, but more information, I advised her to formulate her question in a way that stresses her request for more information, and which would be less impacted by the wrong inflection.
A few examples:
“Can you (please) explain why?” is enough to offset the implied aggressiveness, but may still imply hesitation. The optional please is to further offset the possibly perceived aggressiveness.
“Can you (please) explain your reasoning?” should leave no room for misinterpretation. You are now asking for their though process, instead of a justification.