Monday, January 09, 2012

On saying "I don't know"

On a recent Freakonomics episode they touched on the topic of why people in business are so reluctant to say they don't know something when they, in fact, don't know something. As to why that was… they admitted they didn't know, but they offered a theory (based on dealing with people in business) that postulated it wasn't so much that people were afraid of losing their jobs or that they were delusional (and believed they did know) but that they were conditioned to believe they should always offer an answer based around what they could claim to know; if it was at all in their area of supposed expertise, they should have an answer—not necessarily a right answer, but something more than "I don't know."

My personal take on that scenario:

It's an attempt to comfort those asking the question, whether that's actually benefitting the asker or not; when it comes to what people don't know, they like to believe there's someone who does. They don't like operating under the perception there's no one who can answer a question, and are willing to take any answer over no answer. The people asking are not academics who are interested in the thought experiment; they are asking because they have some vested interest in the topic that motivates them to ask.

The specifics of what I do at work are unimportant, but I am a person whom others ask with some expectation I'll know. And over the years I've gotten over feeling any compulsion to muster up some bullshit; if I don't know, and it's someone with whom I have enough rapport to be frank, I will admit I don't know. However, the reason I can do that is because I've also figured out that people generally don't want to know why something happened; they want to know what to do about it, and generally there's at least something that can be tried to address their problem.

If asked a question like "Will this work?" I have learned always to couch answers in terms like "it should" or "in my tests it was consistently successful" or something. It's not that I have no confidence in what I do; I merely have experience that proves there's always the possibility someone might have a set of circumstances I could not have envisioned or for which I did not account, and thus cannot say with absolute certainty. It's not weaseling my way out of responsibility; it's acknowledging that I am not omnipotent, that I do not hold dominion over all of reality.

Heck, the older I get the more I realize I don't hold dominion over even little things, and expecting I can control anything outside of what I think and do (and only sometimes in those areas do I prove to have control). I like to think I'm merely demonstrating the maturity that allowed me to accept I'm not really in charge of much of anything.

Or at least that's the way I spin it to offer comfort to myself.

But I grasp not everyone would find that confidence in the absence of confidence to be comforting, and so I try to avoid offering a stark "I don't know" and leaving it at that.

Of course, I find that when I can offer something approximately a definite answer that proves to be accurate or helpful it only serves to make the asker more inclined to keep asking me more questions in the future, so sometimes I find that giving an intentionally vague response that requires some level of effort by the asker to figure out something for him-/herself can be the best answer. Teach a man to fish, and whatnot.

Yes, most people only want to be given a fish.

Perhaps that's the saddest aspect of this. In business, people often just want an answer, right or wrong, so they can get through and simply clock out at the end of the day.

I suppose that's why I still have a job, and one where I'm usually very busy.

But I know better than to act like I know everything. That's merely asking to be taken down, and I am confident I'll be taken down by external circumstances—those ones I cannot control—so there's no reason to be falsely knowledgeable and make it me who's being the source of my undoing.

Why anyone would do that I do not know.


  1. Interesting! I didn't know that Freakonomics had a running series.

    The best answer is "I don't know, but I will find out!" That deflects the question at the moment, and as long as you follow up with your investigative results later, it makes you look positive, upbeat and capable.

  2. Not to ruin it for you, Marvin, but it's on NPR (but also available in podcast form).

    I sometimes have to say "I don't know" and follow not with "but I'll find out" but instead with "but here's what I'd do about it" (because sometimes there is no actually knowing but merely speculating).


So, what do you think?