The group line: 'I don't know, what do you think?'

Out of the Woods

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2001

Long ago, people made a decision to come out of caves and down from trees. Decision making has been troublesome ever since. Take just about any group of people, ask where we should all go for lunch, and you get shrugs. Ask the same group who the greatest rock band ever is, you get a fight. It would appear we are opinionated about things far away from us and even willing to come to blows over them, yet unsure and very flexible about the immediate neighborhood. How did that happen?

Well, when our ancestors came out of the cave, one of them said, "Follow me, we'll all go to Minnesota and be farmers!" Imagine how uncomfortable that person was each and every winter as the group huddled around the fire, retelling the story and eating the last of the beets, glaring at Mr. Bright Idea. When football was invented he was finally allowed to make another decision, but they made him put money on it. It's all about what we're willing to take responsibility for.

A lot of people will say they can't make decisions, but they really do and many times each day. They start with what to wear, which earrings or tie clip, whether they need a raincoat, butter or margarine, mayonnaise or whatever that other stuff is. If they are foraging for lunch alone, they pick something, eat it and move on. This is single people I'm speaking of. Married people learned on the honeymoon or before that all decisions need to be discussed, documented and stuck to. This is so totally impractical that neither party is willing to even offer a suggestion for a decision until the volleys of "I don't know, what do you think," have been given the proper go. This erases any possible tracks back to whose idea it was. It is called being held harmless, or harmony.

One thing that complicates making a decision is our awareness of history. Unlike the guy who picked Minnesota, we know a lot about what thousands of years of decisions have led to. We know trans-Atlantic steamers can sink, dirigibles can burn up and the stock market can do both. We used to say you can't lose with real estate and only losers split infinitives. What fools. In time, perhaps we will get comfortable in a world without the perception of absolutes to base sound decisions on. Maybe we can learn to do our best and live with whatever happens without becoming bitter and resentful. Minnesotans coming up with a beet casserole was a good start, although I confess resentment.

There are people in this world who can make decisions and still have a normal life, but they live in mild climates with food hanging on trees and are independently wealthy. They all have prenuptial agreements. They decide things like hammock or recliner chair, papaya or mango.

I learned a great new technique for group decision-making right here in our town recently. I was in a car with a pack of women trying to decide where to go for dinner. We managed a few noncommittal suggestions, not that any were where we personally wanted to go, and were getting nowhere except further out the road. The driver, a mother, said, "Let's vote." She feigned distraction with the road and put up her hand as she rattled off the first option. We all followed immediately with raised hands, never making it to option two. What leadership! Lucky for her, it was a good dinner.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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