There’s a phrase that I think really needs to get used more often. As it is, I hardly ever hear or see it, and I think that’s because it tends to be demonized and/or generally held in contempt. People tend to avoid saying, or even implying, it, because of the backlash that might occur if they do.

That phrase being, “I don’t know.”

Admitting ignorance seems to be a terrible thing in my culture. I’m not really sure why, but it’s definitely a thing. I’ve seen people talk about how they didn’t know something in a circumstance, and how they were SO AFRAID that someone would discover their ignorance so they tried really hard to act like they knew things even though they didn’t. While part of me looks at this in utter bafflement, another part of me sees how others will sometimes react when someone admits ignorance about a certain thing. It’s not very nice.

Specifically, I see a lot of judgement. If you don’t know a thing that they know, something must be wrong with you personally. It becomes some kind of personal failure on your part, of which you are supposed to feel ashamed. People will get condescending, arrogant, mean, all sorts of unpleasant things in response to a simple “I don’t know.” Not everyone, it doesn’t happen every single time, but it’s common enough for people to get nervous about admitting ignorance.

Now, I do think that people need to make a good-faith effort to mend their own ignorance. If you find that you don’t know something, look it up! Find information, put in some work to learn things. While I think it is important to be able to admit ignorance, we also need to be careful to not condone people derailing discussions and demanding to be hand-held through the basics (see: discussions on feminism or racism and how often they get hijacked by men or white people demanding explanations for every basic thing they could have learned elsewhere).

Still, there are plenty and LOTS of situations in which I think it should be ok to admit not knowing something, that people still seriously avoid. For instance, women don’t like to admit they don’t know what’s going on with their car engine at a shop, because the guys working there can be jerks about it. This is a problem.

When Nee and I occasionally need to hire contractors, one of the ways I vet them is by asking a question about something I don’t understand. The one who treats me like there’s something wrong with me is out, the one who answers respectfully, happy to help me understand something outside my realm of experience, is probably in.


Actually, I’ve sorta started checking people in general this way. There are a number of things I do to suss out things about a person I find important, that I’m kind of hesitant to talk about because I’m afraid of being accused of “game playing” or something. Anyway, one of them is this. I admit ignorance. I say, “hey, what does [word] mean?” (or whatever) The person who explains it with the assumption that I am an intelligent person who just never came across that before is good. The person who mocks me or talks down to me or is generally an ass about it doesn’t hear from me again.

Ultimately, I just think this needs to be ok. We need to create a culture in which it is ok to not know a thing. Yeah, we should be respectful about our own ignorance and not try to make everyone cater to us, but it should be ok to say “I don’t know” in response to a question, or to briefly ask about a thing if it isn’t particularly disruptive to do so.

Which means we also need to stop being jerks to people who say they don’t know something. I mean, everyone should stop being jerks, full stop. But right now this is my rant. Sometimes I don’t know things. That doesn’t make me bad.


Filed under rant

4 responses to “Ignorance

  1. PK

    Love this. With the new Cosmos series and some other science related videos going around, the thing I love is that the scientists are NOT afraid to say “I don’t know”, and they have a real joy about the journey to finding out. 🙂 That’s how I think we should feel about that phrase.

    • I agree! I haven’t seen Cosmos yet (I can’t wait to have time!) but I LOVE this attitude of scientists and other academics famous for their intellect and education unabashedly saying, “I don’t know, but I’d love to find out.” That’s how we soak up so much as children. I hate being afraid of ridicule for wanting to soak up just as much information in the same way as an adult.

  2. Love this post – it’s very true! Another thing I’ve found is when I say I don’t know, people don’t believe me. I don’t know if they think it’s a low self esteem thing, or maybe that I’m making an excuse to not help them with whatever they’re asking about? One of Mum’s friends asked me about selling some old collectables online, because I use ebay a bit. I told her I really didn’t know how best to do that, and was concerned about selling them for less than they were worth. The next day, she dropped them off while I was out and told Mum I knew what I was doing! Aargh!

  3. Dan

    I agree; it’s ok to not know things, and it’s true that some people will try to make you feel bad when they learn you don’t know something. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” They demonstrate their lack of love when they try to make themselves look good at your (or my) expense.