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Imagine someone who has been involved in a team work suddenly quits the team and doesn't show up for a long time. Once when you are on your way home from your office, you run into him and after a couple of minutes you break the ice and then ask him about the reason of his absence in the team.

I would appreciate it if you could let me know which one of the following choices would sound more idiomatic in my example:

  • What is the reason behind your..........?

a) lack of enthusiasm

b) unwillingness

For me, they both work, but based on my own language, the latter sounds better to me.

7

Both of your options are poor. For one thing, neither sounds quite right to my ear (native English speaker). For another, you don’t know that either unwillingness or lack of interest is to blame here, so suggesting either doesn’t really make sense.

Instead, something like

Why did you quit the team?

would be more accurate for asking what you want to ask. It would also be entirely appropriate in some contexts—for example, if you were his former boss, since it would be your business to know the answer. (This doesn’t mean you’ll get it, of course, but someone in that position is at least justified in asking.)

In other contexts, the answer to this question isn’t necessarily your business, and thus the question here may be too blunt. If this is too blunt, then English has a lot of ways of softening questions like this (since native English speakers are notoriously sensitive about this kind of thing, at least compared to the speakers of some other languages who are far more comfortable being blunt).

For example, you can introduce the question by suggesting that you know you’re possibly probing beyond what is strictly your business. This invites the other to refuse to answer if they are uncomfortable doing so, as you have already admitted that they are entitled to do so. Examples,

If you don’t mind my asking, why did you quit the team?

Sorry if this is too personal, but I am curious why you quit the team.

I know it’s really none of my business, but can I just ask, why did you quit the team?

And so on in endless variations and combinations.

You can also try hinting that you would be interested in this information, and see if the other volunteers it. This is often known (pejoratively) in English as “beating around the bush,” and can be seen in a negative light, making you look foolish and/or annoying (particularly if you keep trying when the other does not volunteer the information). However, in sensitive situations, it can be the best approach. The key is to accept ahead of time that you will most likely not get an answer this way, and you cannot really follow up such an approach to try to press for more. The whole point is that the other person can pretend to have not gotten the hint if they don’t want to answer—and to make that plausible, it generally has to be possible that they didn’t get the hint. The advantage is that it’s even softer than the previous.

I never heard what happened when you left...

Have you been up to anything interesting since you left the team?

And so on, referencing events in the right timeframe and hoping the other expands on what you already know with the details you are looking for.

  • Interesting @KRyan. I really cannot grasp why the English native speakers are so much sensitive to such a simple question, while it can demonstrate a sense sympathy in speaker. – A-friend Jan 31 '17 at 19:42
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    @A-friend It depends a lot on your relationship with the person spoken to. But suddenly quitting a team may be embarrassing or private, and in many cases you have no business probing into that. – KRyan Jan 31 '17 at 19:43
  • What about a situation in which he/she is somewhat a semi-close / close friend of you? @KRyan – A-friend Jan 31 '17 at 19:54
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    @A-friend Then, being a close friend, I would judge the acceptability-vs-intrusiveness of my question based on my knowledge of that friend and his-or-her preferences and comfort, and adjust my question accordingly. – KRyan Jan 31 '17 at 20:09
9

This could result in a sensitive subject matter.

Your choices may have an accusatory tone.

It may be best to ask in this way:

What is the reason for your lack of interest?

or

Why haven't we seen you for a while? Is everything okay?

  • I like this one for enforcing the social context. If someone up and quits form your team, "lack of interest" and "unwillingness" have the wrong implication, especially if they quit due to health problems. – mstorkson Jan 30 '17 at 18:26
5

There is a difference between "unwillingness" ("lack of desire") and "lack of interest". I suspect, if phrased properly, these would also be different in your own language.

Example: "Why don't you watch TV?"

I don't want to.

I'm not interested.

Same outcome but different motivation. The first suggests a lack of desire to do that activity. The second says that the suggested activity is not interesting enough to get me to want to do it.

To put it a different way, the first is my own feeling, that the reason I don't do it is because I don't want to. The second puts the responsibility on the activity -- it's not my fault I don't want to do it, the activity is just too boring to capture my interest.

This related to Curtis White's comment about this being a sensitive question. If you ask someone why they are unwilling to do something, it shifts the blame to them. Instead if you ask why they are not interested, then the activity is to blame -- perhaps if it was more interesting, they would go.

In many cases it is considered rude to tell someone how they feel, or to assume they feel a certain way. Unless you are in a position of authority over them, you're better off using less presumptive questions like:

Why isn't it interesting for you?

Is it something we did?

Is there something going on in your life that keeps you from participating?

and so on.

2

I agree with the answers and comments that say that you should not start by asking about enthusiasm, willingness or interest if you don’t already know that one of those was involved.  The person might have been unable to attend and/or participate.  As others have mentioned, a health issue might have been involved.  If you’re talking about a work (job)-related activity, and you haven’t seen him around the building at all, he might have quit the company (or he might have been fired).  If it’s a non-work activity (e.g., playing some sport), the problem might be that he has been working very long (late) hours at his job.  (Or, he might have been in jail.)

So you can see how it might be a sensitive subject, as Curtis White said.

As to the distinctions in meaning: it seems to me that interested and enthusiastic are similar in meaning but different in degree.  For example, I was interested in seeing that movie about the paralyzed guy in the wheelchair and his caregiver, but I was enthusiastic about seeing the latest Star Wars movie.  As to the others, examples might help.  Suppose I’m a portrait painter.

  1. I’m interested in painting portraits of random people.  I would be less interested in painting a portrait of a bowl of fruit, but, what the heck? It’s my job; I still want to do it.  I would be enthusiastic about painting a portrait of a celebrity, like a movie or TV star, or a famous author or musician.
  2. I’m not interested in painting the walls of an office building; I don’t want to do it.  But I’m willing to do it, because nobody wants to pay me to paint their portrait, and I need the money.
  3. I’m finished painting the walls, and now the company wants me to work as their janitor (cleaning the floors, etc.)  I’m unwilling to do that; I refuse.  I’ll quit and try to find another job.

Some other examples:

  1. I’m enthusiastic about becoming an astronaut, but I’m not able to, because I don’t satisfy the acceptance criteria.  I might be too tall (or too fat).  I might have a health problem (like high blood pressure) that makes it dangerous for me to travel into space.  (Or I might have failed the intelligence test — another example of a sensitive subject).
  2. I want to eat peanut butter, but I can’t (I’m not able to) because I’m allergic to peanuts.
  3. I’m interested in skydiving (jumping out of an airplane), but I don’t actually want to try it, because I’m afraid to.

I don’t really agree with Andrew’s statement that don’t want to is a statement about the person’s feelings, while not interested is a statement about the activity itself.  I’m not interested in watching a basket-weaving competition, but apparently some people are enthusiastic about it.  We feel differently.  (But, of course, the activity is important — it’s about how the person feels about that activity.)

To answer your actual question, I believe that Curtis’s “Why haven’t we seen you for a while?” is a good choice, or something similar, like “Why haven’t you been participating?” or “Why haven’t you joined us?”.  The exact nature of the activity may make some word choices more appropriate than others.

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