# The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 06 Nov 2019

Regarding the phrase “why didn't you just…”, Mike Hoye has something to say that I've heard expressed similarly by several other people:

Whenever you look at a problem somebody’s been working on for a week or a month or maybe years and propose a simple, obvious solution that just happens to be the first thing that comes into your head, then you’re also making it crystal clear to people what you think of them and their work.

(Specifically, that you think they must be a blockhead for not thinking of this solution immediately.)

I think this was first pointed out to me by Andy Lester.

I think the problem here may be different than it seems. When someone says “Why don't you just (whatever)” there are at least two things they might intend:

1. Why didn't you just use sshd? I suppose it's because you're an incompetent nitwit.

2. Why didn't you just use sshd? I suppose it's because there's some good reason I'm not seeing. Can you please point it out?

Certainly the tech world is full of response 1. But I wonder how many people were trying to communicate response 2 and had it received as response 1 anyway? And I wonder how many times I was trying to communicate response 2 and had it received as response 1?

Mike Hoye doesn't provide any alternative phrasings, which suggests to me that he assumes that all uses of “why didn't you just” are response 1, and are meant to imply contempt. I assure you, Gentle Reader, that that is not the case.

Pondering this over the years, I have realized I honestly don't know how to express my question to make clear that I mean #2, without including a ridiculously long and pleading disclaimer before what should be a short question. Someone insecure enough to read contempt into my question will have no trouble reading it into a great many different phrasings of the question, or perhaps into any question at all. (Or so I imagine; maybe this is my own insecurities speaking.)

Can we agree that the problem is not simply with the word “just”, and that merely leaving it out does not solve the basic problem? I am not asking a rhetorical question here; can we agree? To me,

Why didn't you use sshd?

seems to suffer from all the same objections as the “just”ful version and to be subject to all the same angry responses. Is it possible the whole issue is only over a difference in the connotations of “just” in different regional variations of English? I don't think it is and I'll continue with the article assuming that it isn't and that the solution isn't as simple as removing “just”.

Let me try to ask the question in a better better way:

There must be a good reason why you didn't use sshd

I don't see why you didn't use sshd

I don't understand why you didn't use sshd

I'd like to know why you didn't use sshd

I'm not clever enough to understand why you didn't use sshd

I think the sort of person who is going to be insulted by the original version of my question will have no trouble being insulted by any of those versions, maybe interpreting them as:

There must be a good reason why you didn't use sshd. Surely it's because you're an incompetent nitwit.

I don't see why you didn't use sshd. Maybe the team you're working with is incompetent?

I don't understand why you didn't use sshd. Probably it's because you're not that smart.

I'd like to know why you didn't use sshd. Is it because there's something wrong with your brain?

I'm not clever enough to understand why you didn't use sshd. It would take a fucking genius to figure that out.

The more self-effacing I make it, the more I try to put in that I think the trouble is only in my own understanding, the more mocking and sarcastic it seems to me and the more likely I think it is to be misinterpreted. Our inner voices can be cruel. Mockery and contempt we receive once can echo again and again in our minds. It is very sad.

So folks, please help me out here. This is a real problem in my life. Every week it happens that someone is telling me what they are working on. I think of what seems like a straightforward way to proceed. I assume there must be some aspect I do not appreciate, because the person I am talking to has thought about it a lot more than I have. Aha, I have an opportunity! Sometimes it's hard to identify what it is that I don't understand, but here the gap in my understanding is clear and glaring, ready to be filled.

I want to ask them about it and gain the benefit of their expertise, just because I am interested and curious, and perhaps even because the knowledge might come in useful. But then I run into trouble. I want to ask “Why didn't you just use sshd?” with the understanding that we both agree that that would be an obvious thing to try, and that I am looking forward to hearing their well-considered reason why not.

I want to ask the question in a way that will make them smile, hold up their index finger, and say “Aha! You might think that sshd would be a good choice, but…”. And I want them to understand that I will not infer from that reply that they think I am an incompetent nitwit.

What if I were to say

I suppose sshd wasn't going to work?

Would that be safer? How about:

Naïvely, I would think that sshd would work for that

but again I think that suggests sarcasm. A colleague suggests:

So, I probably would've tried using sshd here. Would that not work out?

What to do? I'm in despair. Andy, any thoughts?