“It Depends” is not a Helpful Answer

Whether you’re asking about travel destinations before heading to a foreign country or financial implications regarding the impact on your future, you might often get the “it depends” answer from the “informed individual.” What’s worse, is that there’s not usually a follow-up with the likely scenarios of alternative A or alternative B, but just a smirky smile and a phrase: “Like with It_Depends  most things, it really depends on what you want.”

I feel like the questioner has already expressed what they want – they are looking for advice on a few alternatives and their implications from you, the supposed enlightened individual holding onto a bit of knowledge. I don’t know if it’s because people don’t want to be held responsible for an unfortunate outcome or possible dissatisfaction with the response, or if in fact, they really have no idea.

It makes me think about the nature of asking questions, and what happens often to me during travel in Latin America. Normally, I’ll find myself in a situation where I’m looking for a bus to a specific town or city, and when I inquire about the hours of departure for the proposed transport, I’ll sometimes get the terse reply, “Nope, that already left.” In dismay, I’ll turn around and figure out how else I could make my way to the destination. Experience has taught me that there are often many buses that leave on many schedules, and if I miss one, there is a high probability that another one could be leaving in two hours – whodathunk!buses-of-guatemala-3

To unpack this “question asking” situation little more, I will often find out later that there are often better or faster ways of getting to the destination that the initial responder(s) never told me about. That’s something else experience has taught me: ask the same question to many people, even if the first person told you “no” and you want to believe them.

It comes down to this: anyone receiving a question should be curious as to why someone asked them the question in the first place, and maybe delve into the motives for asking such a question. Someone who is asking about a bus for a specific destination wants to go there, their priority is getting there, and they may not care that a bus already left if another was set to leave soon, and could be equally be satisfied if another station with similar bus travel was located nearby.

Instead, I think some people just take the question as a one-off situation: they were asking about that specific bus and that specific route, instead of the purpose behind the question. Many just choose to deflect the question and move on. They don’t care about being helpful. Not all people are like this though. I find in places that have high quality service will not only tell you that something isn’t possible at the moment, but how it can be possible later – they see the main-questionsoriginal purpose for asking and take a moment to help you out. They see through the current roadblock and tell you how you can get to your ultimate destination.

Which is why I think the answer of “it depends” is so frustrating. Someone isn’t asking because they want you to engrave your answer in stone or testify in court, they are asking for themselves for more information relating to the overall purpose of their goal, you’re just the intermediary.

When people usually ask me, “How long do you think it takes to learn Spanish?” I never respond with “it depends” because even though it’s true, it’s simply not helpful, and they aren’t asking me to teach them, nor for a specific number of weeks, nor will they hold me to whatever I say if they do choose to start the process. Quite simply, they are excited and are doing a bit of information gathering.

I usually say, “I think everyone can learn another language. What’s important is to be dedicated to the practice of it and find a way that makes it fun. I feel like someone can reach conversational fluency in a couple of months, and what’s amazing is that even after a week or two of dedicated practice you’ll feel confident of the progress you’re making and want to study even more.”

Now that wasn’t too hard to provide a little more guidance, now was it?

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