Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Just Admit You Don’t Know



Have you noticed that, nowadays, it is a shame not to know? When I ask a simple question, such as “what is there at the canteen for lunch today?”,  my British friends and colleagues, instead of saying “I don’t know”, like to speculate. “Hmmm, let’s see, it is Wednesday, right? I bet we are going to have the overcooked burgers again”.
I might be naïve, but, when I don’t know, I just say so. Don’t get me wrong, I hate people who are always saying that they don’t know. Just picture yourself going to the doctor to be told, in response to each of your questions, “I don’t know”. It would be annoying, wouldn’t it? That said, from time to time, I prefer to say that I don’t know instead of making something up. This is obviously a major etiquette mistake over here. My boss once snapped back at me: “It is your job to know!”.
Let me rephrase what she probably meant –as you know, things need to be interpreted over here-: it is your job never to admit that you don’t know. Indeed, my colleagues are very creative at finding ways to avoid saying that they don’t know. The first technique is to buy time, and say that you will look into it, and then come back with an answer. It is even better if you can blame someone for not knowing, usually another colleague, who should have given you the information but didn’t –what a shame! It will be a useful diversion and the original question will immediately be forgotten.
Alternatively, you can ask another question, or ask your interlocutor to clarify the question. If you are really good, you might manage to look pompous and say something like “That’s not the real issue, I think that we should focus instead on…” and then lead the conversation where you want it to be.
Finally, some are more adventurous and simply make something up really fast. If they are talented, it might look credible. Some are experts at this.
Now that I have left the Corporate world, I am still fascinated to see how creative my colleagues could be. If only they had been putting the same energy actually doing their job!
When did it become unacceptable to admit that you don’t know? Is it because it would be a sign of weakness? Why are we ashamed of not knowing? Well, I don’t know.


28 comments:

  1. You have zeroed in on what are commonly known as 'know it all's.' Whatever is being discussed, they have the right answer, more information and greater expertise than everyone else. Unfortunately we live in a world where this kind of one-upmanship is encouraged. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that not knowing something might be seen as a weakness. In England? 100% true!

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    1. It is annoying, isn't it? Why do people have to know all the time? Maybe they want to prove something. Maybe they have to prove something to themselves...

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  2. You know there is this little joke in India that goes like never ask for directions because even if they don't know they will give it you all wrong and you end up getting all the more confused! Thoughmy seven year stay in the lovely country and I never once had that experience!

    Maybe we just have made such a huge issue about being the know it all that not knowing anything is a sign of weakness, lack of knowledge or just plain un-intelligence (that is not a word!)

    Maybe we see so many success stories around us that we have this constant urge to be the all knowing and all powerful.. that must be it!

    See, even I am scared to admit I don't know! ;)

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    1. Don't be scared to admit it, Hajra! And just like you I don't know. I actually think that it would be boring if I knew everything...

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  3. Oh I share your irritation with people who feel insecure enough not to be able to admit they dont know. I think the more you know the more you know how much there is that you dont know!

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    1. Wasn't it Montaigne (the philosopher) who said that he was only sure of one thing, that he didn't know anything? He was right.

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  4. Maybe it's being a teacher, but I never hesitate to say I don't know. You can bet the next time I have the answer though.

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    1. I think that it is all about being honest : it is OK not to know and find out a bit later.

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  5. interesting!! I am out of the work force loop...so all I have is a million ?s from kids that i get tired of answering so I just say Oh..i don't know about 10 times a day! I still am amazed that they keep asking me things!!

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    1. Ah, kids and their questions...mind you, some are difficult to answer. My younger one keeps asking me what the point of living is given the fact that we all die. Not sure what I can say...

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  6. I really don't know when it became unacceptable...

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    1. Neither do I...But now, you just HAVE to know.

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  7. There's a lot of things I don't know and am not afraid to admit it. Then again there's a lot of things I do know and I'm not afraid to admit that either. Does not knowing make me stupid and knowing make me pompous? lol something to ponder I guess ;)

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    1. I think that at the end of the day we all have to be honest I suppose. It is good of you know, and fine if you don't. I wouldn't change a thing.

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  8. Oh for the wordless simplicity of the Gallic shrug! :)

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    1. I miss it and I can't believe that I just said that! It would be rude over here I suppose...

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  9. Have to agree with your point. In England, I learned to be devious, never admit I didn't know. Instead, I'd talk around, redirect it, or answer with a question, an art that people there seem to learn in their cradles and perfect as they grow up. Then I worked with Procter & Gamble for 14 years. One of the first things they taught me was to say, "I don't know," and "I'll find out," and go do the research. Simpler and straightforward.

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    1. That's exactly what I need: to learn to be devious...But somehow I never have. I am not afraid to admit that i don't know and I am too old to change anyway!

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  10. Intellectual humility has become scarce through the years. As I'm a former teacher, like Thom above, I tried to lead by example and admitted when I didn't know something but would follow it with, "I'll look more into it and give you an answer next meeting", or something to that effect. Perhaps Google has made it worse considering anyone can Google practically anything these days and have an answer?... Great post, Muriel! Good questions!...but I don't have an answer either ;-)

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    1. Just like you, I don't have the response...I suppose that it makes people feel important when they say they know. As for me, I will just admit that I don't know and then google it...

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  11. I hate to be a typical Britisher, but I'm guilty, your honour! If I don't know, I make it up, especially if it's a question that I should know. Most often, I'll ask someone else and if they don't know I berate them for not having the information at their finger tips.

    It's seen as a weakness and a sign of disinterest. If I'm not interested, I just won't know...probably one of the reasons no one ever asks me anything!

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    1. You are SO British...but at least you admit it: you make it up. I need to talk to you, I don't have this skill to make things up in a matter of seconds. How do you do it?

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  12. I am never ashamed to say I don't know. I think the point is to find out afterwards and never remain ignorant of the answer so you have to say you don't know a second time.

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    1. I totally agree. Are you sure that you are not French?

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  13. If there's nothing you don't know then you've nothing left to learn. How boring.

    Better to fess up.

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    1. I totally agree. But apparently, it is to what you need to do in this country. I will never get used to it.

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  14. Muriel, this post hit home for me because I also hate people who say I don't know as an easy way out and not make any effort to help. I have brought this up before about how people should say I am not sure, let me find out. I feel it shows your willingness to help out instead of closing the door in your face. However, you are right, if I don't know and am sincere, I do say I don't know but try to see if there is another way I can help. Hope that makes sense.

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    1. It is true that some say "I don't know" to make things easier for them and for them only. In which case I also find it annoying. But over here, people prefer to make something up rather than admit that they don't know. Very annoying.

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