The Limits of Rationality

A Misunderstanding

When I was living in Tokyo, I once tried to purchase tickets for a sumo wrestling tournament at my neighborhood 7-Eleven.* The ticket machine was only in Japanese, and I ended up requesting the assistance of a young female employee who happened to speak a bit of English – a find nothing short of miraculous. I was appreciative of her help, as it wasn’t the easiest transaction in the world, plus it was a time-sensitive task. So I asked for her name (she was wearing a tag but in Japanese), mentioning that I wanted to thank her properly.

*Convenience stores in Japan are incredibly versatile, and are places where you can pay bills, buy bus tickets, receive packages, and so forth.

And that was when things went downhill.

It is hard to convey how uncomfortable she was with the idea that I wanted her name, how uncomfortable our interaction quickly became. Her immediate response was a stammering rejection: she didn’t have to tell me her name. I was completely confused myself with the shift in tone. I tried to clarify, but she interjected, more forcefully, that she didn’t have to tell me her name if she didn’t want to, that her manager didn’t make her do that. She said a few other things, but it was clear she had construed what I intended as a grateful request into something far more lecherous.

We went through the rest of the transaction in awkward silence. I wanted so much to speak up again, to correct her misapprehension. I longed to say that I had pre-stated my intention to use her name only to thank her, and to note that she already had a fucking nametag on (albeit one I couldn’t read). But I didn’t do either. I knew I was already irredeemable in her eyes. Mere words wouldn’t explain away her feelings, and would likely only reinforce them. So I shut up instead. I took my tickets, left the 7-Eleven, and never went back to that store again.

Revisiting the Misunderstanding

In the hours and days that followed, I replayed the interaction over and over in my head, even sharing the story with friends. I came to two conclusions.

  1. I was right in shutting up, if not for me then for the situation. It was clear that our perspectives were irreconcilable, and any further talking would have made her all the more uncomfortable – as though I were mansplaining why she shouldn’t think I was being a creep. Personal frustration aside, it was best to leave it be.
  2. Despite this, I still wanted validation for my feeling wronged by her finding offense in my question. I needed to “set the record straight” as it were, to keep alive in my mind the notion that she did not have a legitimate reason to fear me, while also preserving my rightness from an “objective” point of view.

Both my conclusions and my actions are revealing, I think, as is the fact that I can recall the incident with such vividness years later, and even the fact that I write about it now.

It’s an innate human characteristic, I think. We have this stubborn belief that we can compel others to see how right we are with the obviousness of our rightness. We desire to point to the presence of an objective truth – the one we see so clearly. Essentially, I had failed to find validation for that truth, for my truth, in the moment. And as I had already lost the employee, I sought reassurance in the aftermath of the situation. I needed to present to third-party arbiters that I was not out of line, that my story (of her unfair overreaction) – and not hers (of me being a creep) – was in fact the only reasonable interpretation.

Indeed, the self-assuredness we have applies not only to debates and narratives, but to every facet of our lives – and especially our interactions and relationships. We perceive and want others to perceive as we do. Certainly I am not immune from this tendency, and as a researcher and writer, am especially susceptible to it. I want to make the closing argument and sway the jury (“I am not a pervert!“). I want the last word, if only to situate myself firmly in the right. The fact that I can leave things be, if for the moment, hardly means the desire to interject does not persist, nor does it suggest any wavering of belief in my own persuasive powers  – as evidenced in my actions after the fact.

Beyond the Misunderstanding

Yet as I have gotten older, I have also come to realize the irrelevance, even the impossibility of being right or wrong when feelings are involved. I have come to see the futility of litigating something that another sees as already determined or irrevocably broken. Certainly part of this is because not everyone can be convinced – as is the case with challenges to our fundamental beliefs or worldviews. But even beyond the individual, the truth is that not everything can be rationalized or broken down or made sense of. Expecting neatness in life is indeed often a quest for fool’s gold.

Somewhere out there, there’s a girl who remembers me as a creep. I can accept that now, and accept there are perfectly legitimate reasons for her to have thought so – certainly more so than I would have  allowed two years ago. I was right in not having sought to clarify myself further in the moment. But in its aftermath, the truth is I did not need external validation or reassurance for my actions. The situation itself hardly warranted revisiting. It was just a misunderstanding, an awkward interaction, with no relevant prologue or conclusion, no follow-up, and no deeper meaning to impart. It was a dot.

I’d like to think that accepting the limits of rationality – of right and wrong – is a sign of personal growth. Yet with it too comes another Pandora’s box that makes life all the more painful. For what frustrates me now is not that my explanations may be insufficient for a resolution to my liking but that there often exists no resolution at all. It is the difference between losing a court ruling and living in a world without a justice system. Life is messy, of course. But while it is easy to understand that life in the broad does not abide by the principles of Chekhov’s gun, it is far more difficult to accept that messiness as applied to individual circumstance.*

*Analogously, “life is unfair,” we all accept. But “my life is unfair” is a harder pill to swallow, like when the mechanic overcharges you, or when an incompetent colleague gets a raise.

It has always been difficult for me to let things go. Only in adulthood did I become more selfish about the kind of relationships I desired. Only in recent years did I begin to abandon books halfway through that I did not enjoy. Still, it is infinitely more difficult to let go when it involves a decision that I did not make in the first place, or when it involves no particular decision by anybody at all. He perceives a falling out. She no longer wants me in her life. They stopped caring. I’m supposed to accept it. Metaphorically shut up, leave, and never come back again.

This is the messiness of life, too often a series of random, unconnected dots. It is full of loose ends and false leads and tangents that become apparent only in retrospect. It is full of moments that seem meaningful but are not, full of people who seem important but fade away. No explanations, no closing arguments, no right or wrong.

I hate that.

(Photo by J.Smith at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5,, via Wikimedia Commons)


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