If you donít know, just admit that you donít know
“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”
---- Mark Twain in “Life on the Mississippi”
Oh, if we could all learn those three golden words:
“I don’t know.”
Who has ever regretted saying it? From there, you can go anywhere. You can claim you’re not finished researching the topic. You can say you will find out the answer. Or, after all, you are entitled to gaps in your vast knowledge.
But if you truly don’t know something and decide to take a stab at the answer, you’re pretty much doomed. As the majority of the famous political bloopers show.
True, saying “I don’t know” may not send stocks in you soaring, but it will be a black Friday if you set out to pretend you know something you don’t.
Whether you liked George W. Bush or not, it was hard not to feel a little sorry for him when a reporter once asked him to name the presidents of Taiwan, Pakistan, India and Chechnya. (No, you and I couldn’t either, but we’re not running for president, are we? And those were political hot spots at the time Bush was asked.)
“I don’t know” would have done so better than the sad rambling attempt at an answer he came up with: “The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected –-- not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent…. general. I can name the general. General.” No name other than general ever made its way through the gray matter, if indeed there had ever been a name in there.
We should all practice saying it: “I don’t know.”
It’s the only thing I mastered in taking foreign languages, and “Je ne sais pas” got me through four classes in French, one in high school, one in college and two in graduate school! I learned to say it as the French do, “je” and “ne” being said as one syllable, so French-like that teachers must have thought I knew even more French than I let on.
To this day, I can only say clearly two sentences in French, “Je parle un peu de francaise” (I speak a little French), which is a lie, and “Je ne sais pas,” which is the truth.
“Yo no se” (I don’t know) has served me equally well in Spanish. I have answered questions all over Mexico and Spain with this truthful answer. Never mind that I was probably being asked, “Why are you standing on my foot?”
Doctors need to learn to say, “I don’t know.” True, they might charge less but malpractice rates would drop and compensate for any lost business.
Bosses need to learn it. When inflicting new policies on those they supervise, bosses frequently don’t know why the policies have come down from on high. Nor do they want their underlings to know they really have very little power, so asked why new procedures are to be followed, bosses might say, “Because I say so,” or, even more pathetically, “Because I’m the boss.”
Ditto for parents. Your kids will eventually find out you know next to nothing, why make them wait until they’re teenagers to find out the hard way?
Teachers certainly need to learn to say it. When I was new at teaching, I had a hard time admitting when I didn’t know an answer and would sometimes bluster. At the end of my college teaching career, “I don’t know” rolled off my tongue as easily as “Could you postpone the rest of your nap until after class?”
And don’t forget our basic right to cultivate those gaps in our vast knowledge. I gave up trying to know much of anything about economics in, of all places, a college economics class decades ago. Any question asked of me about filling out tax returns gets a quick, “I don’t know.”
More recently, I pretty much gave up trying to grasp several scientific concepts after reading an article about the cosmos that purported to show that nothing is really something.
Was Socrates being modest or just sly when he said, “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing”? Huh?
Nothing is something I know a lot about, but this business of nothing being something is way beyond me.
“I don’t know” may eventually prove inadequate. I may move on to “I have NO idea.”