I Don’t Know

Back in my lawyer days I often found it hard to convince witnesses that it was OK to say, “I don’t know.”

But “I don’t know” is a perfectly fine answer.  In fact, in many situations it is the only appropriate answer, because it is the only truthful answer.

We all have a tendency, I think, to resist admitting we don’t know something, especially if asked a question to which we think we should know the answer. Of course it’s also true that in normal conversation we don’t expect absolute certainty.  We’re usually comfortable answering a question as long as we’re reasonably confident of our answer, even if not absolutely certain of it.

It seems to me that there are probably few things of which we can be absolutely confident.  In fact, we ought to be suspicious of any claim of absolute certainty.

So I think we’d probably do well to say “I don’t know” more often.

But I’m not certain of that.

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32 comments on “I Don’t Know

  1. BeeHappee says:

    Love the last line!
    Thanks for the reminder. I have the worst tendency to actually not answer the question and just go in circles babbling this or that but not admit that I don’t know. Kids are good teachers though, they ask so many things at so many angles, that I end up starting to admit: I don’t know. Then I say: well, what do you think? And it just happens, that most of the time they already have a perfectly fine answer. 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      I love how kids ask “why?” so much (even though it could be maddening). Maybe it’s better to be filled with questions than with answers. 🙂

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  2. I don’t know exactly when it was (!), but I came to this way of thinking a few years ago. Now the only thing about which I am absolutely certain is that I am absolutely certain about nothing.
    You’ve put a song in my head that now I’ll add to my soundtrack of the day frame. Thanks!

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  3. Sue says:

    Ha. Good post. And so true—-of that, I am certain!

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    • Bill says:

      I’m reminded of a quote from Mr. Jefferson: “He who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.”

      Actually it’s even better in its context: “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.” 🙂

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  4. Jeff says:

    Of, course, this doesn’t apply to politicians … they’re special.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Oh I definitely agree! At work (I assist 3 lawyers) if I don’t know the answer to a question I always say “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you.” I have no poker face, so if I’m uncertain of something I say it always shows in my face. Always better to be truthful!

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    • Bill says:

      That’s a great answer. I’ve seen lots of situations where people were embarrassed (or too proud) to admit they didn’t know an answer. Sometimes guessing (even though they wouldn’t have called it that) got them into a lot of trouble.

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  6. One of the most liberating things I’ve ever done is learn to be able to say, ‘I don’t know.’

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  7. Bill, it is indeed hard to admit when I don’t know something. However, I do love to get into conversations with people on subjects that I don’t have knowledge about. Since most folks love talking about things from their expertise, it’s an easy conversation that thrills them and I get to absorb new knowledge about something “I don’t know” about. After the conversation is over, they think I’m the greatest conversationalist and I’ve but said just a few words in question form. Most people love to talk about their experiences and knowledge. All I have to do is listen and then there’s one more thing “I do know”. 🙂

    Have a great “I don’t know” day.

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    • Bill says:

      Being a good listener is a great skill. I’m not very good at it. Lately I’ve been trying to keep in mind that people are interesting and to treat conversations as more like reading. With all those great books walking around, why not read them?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. ain't for city gals says:

    I find myself saying I don’t know or saying nothing at all more often than not. Especially after reading that 95% of the people aren’t really listening to what you are saying anyway….they are thinking what they are going to say next!…

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    • Bill says:

      That seems a good practice to me. Your comment reminds me of something from one of my favorite books (Fight Club). The narrator liked to go to support groups for people with terminal illnesses, pretending that he had the disease, because there he felt like people were actually listening to him: “This is why I loved the support groups so much, if people thought you were dying, they gave you their full attention. If this might be the last time they saw you, they really saw you. Everything else about their checkbook balance and radio songs and messy hair went out the window. You had their full attention. People listened instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. If there is anything I have learned (pardon the irony) from Zen, it is that I truly don’t know. I am not in control of this universe, and I do not know…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Zambian Lady says:

    I think I say “I don;t know” a bit too much. I say so because I do not want to get into an argument, am not in the mood to chat, am not interested in the conversation and more recently because I do not want to talk to a colleague who gossips to much. This has worked well with the latter person because he never asks for people’s personal details any more.

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    • Bill says:

      “I don’t know” seems to me to be a good way to avoid a political argument. People who want to argue are usually certain of their beliefs and want to argue with someone who disagrees with them. “I don’t know” often leaves them no basis for an argument. 🙂

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  11. Good advice, Bill. Hard to say, sometimes.

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  12. EllaDee says:

    There’s nothing wrong with “I don’t know” if that’s the truth. In some cases, where possible, it’s best followed by “let me find out” “let me me ask”… but in some many cases it can be indicative of “I can’t be bothered”… in which case that’s the real answer.
    Personally, I find “I don’t know” an effective substitute for “mind your own business”…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      “I don’t know” is often the honest answer (probably more often than folks tend to realize). It seems to me that when we don’t know something, it’s a good practice to admit that.

      As I mentioned in reply to Zambian Lady, the honest response “I don’t know” can be a good way to avoid be sucked into a political argument too.

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  13. shoreacres says:

    Over the years, I’ve developed my own holy trinity of useful statements: I don’t know, I wonder why?, and Let’s find out. With those three at hand, a life filled with curiosity, exploration and delightful discovery is guaranteed. I know that.

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    • Bill says:

      I’m a wonderer and a philomath (which is one of the reasons I enjoy your blog). Those three comments are part of my everyday life too and always have been. In my case, often “Let’s find out” is ultimately followed (if I’m honest about it) by “I still don’t know,” even though I may have picked up a lot of information (and new questions) along the way. I’m OK with that. Maybe the questions I’m asking are too difficult. 🙂

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  14. This is a great post, Bill. Thank you for the gentle reminder that it’s okay to let our egos go and admit when we don’t know something. Admitting to not knowing something can open up doors of opportunity.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks Jackie. In my old job I had to prepare people to answer questions truthfully and accurately. Convincing them that it is OK to say “I don’t know” was often difficult–and pride was often the reason. And I know that it doesn’t come naturally to me either. You’re right that it is often matter of “letting our egos go,” and I think you’re also right that being honest about not knowing can open doors of opportunity. Well said.

      Like

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