I wrote this more than 25 years ago. I had been gone from West83rdStreet for quite a while by then. The only time I recall ever hearing “I don’t know” was when said by classmates at PS9 or JHS44. This was never by a teacher before high school, and rarely then. Clergy at Rodeph Sholom, the SAJ and B’nai Jeshurun might suggest that they would look it up, as did college faculty, but rarely. Adults seemed to know everything or thought that they did or did not want to lose power to those younger than themselves.
It is a simple phrase, the sweeter for being seldom heard, which has amazing power. People fear to speak its words, as if to do so would cleave the heavens. Indeed, it would have the cosmic effect of reducing the number of noisy disagreements between adults and adolescents, between bosses and subordinates, between husbands and wives. Imagine: three words that could reduce malpractice insurance rates, “I don’t know” is a phrase that’s a sure sign of honesty.
“I don’t know” is often the response of the smartest people. We have a cultural requirement for substantive answers to all questions and a corollary fear of appearing stupid or ignorant. This combination begets circuitous or fictitious answers, which leave us looking stupid or ignorant or dishonest.
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The parent confronted with a question for which no answer comes to mind fears losing face (which translates to power and control) unless some answer is provided. Its obvious flimsiness triggers a quick deterioration from simple disagreement through shouting match to knock-down drag-out. All for a lack of “I don’t know.”
If you can’t make it all the way to “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure” might suffice. A strong followup to either combination is “I can find out” or “I can check on that.” With teenagers and other young people, you’ll find that a new respect has developed. Your willingness to admit to a less-than-perfect knowledge of the world and your willingness to pursue what’s important to them will add new vitality to old relationships.
The boss who responds to subordinates’ questions with “that’s your job” and the employee who fakes it are not fooling each other. The employee senses that the boss doesn’t know, and the boss is positive the employee has the shovel out. In both cases, dramatic benefits are possible from “I don’t know.” The boss who admits a lack of encyclopedic knowledge will be held in higher regard, and the employee whose fallibility is demonstrated can actually make points by the proper reception of insights from above.
I’ve always admired salespeople who have at their fingertips the names of people they can call upon to fill the gaps in their knowledge. Faking technical material never works and isn’t necessary. Knowing where the answer is is a short step from having it.
Doctors are the worst at “I don’t know.” (This is mostly our fault, because we have the highest expectations of these professionals.) They’ve even improved on it, with a sonorous phrase, “I want to refer you to…” And, of course, “I don’t know” is not even in the vocabulary of politicians. Many of us avoid using the words “I don’t know” because they’re interpreted as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Rest assured that for some “I don’t know” is a demonstration of true strength.
Why are these words so troublesome? I don’t know.