“I don’t know” is always a perfectly acceptable answer

Tonight I wage a personal war against all people who misunderstand and misuse the phrase “I don’t know.” Not only is it a perfectly acceptable answer, but it’s also one of the best answers you can give in certain situations. The educational system hates “I don’t know,” authority figures hate “I don’t know” and I hate that people hate “I don’t know.”

In terms of schools, “I don’t know” has been scorned as a sign of ignorance. When a teacher poses a question and a student sheepishly replies that he or she does not know the answer, it appears they are unprepared or not engaged. Honestly, that may be the case in some instances. In others though, and this is more important, saying “I don’t know” becomes a cry for help, a declaration that something was missed or lost in translation. When a student tells an instructor of any kind that they do not know the answer, the answer should be given. The instructor should not chastise the student and make them to feel inferior for admitting a lack of knowledge. On the contrary, those who admit they do not know something are some of the wisest people. They do not pretend they know something they don’t know and they do not simply refuse to learn. They are bold and curious, and though it may sound as though I am making a hero out of somebody ordinary, “I don’t know” is no small matter.

Instructors need to embrace the “I don’t knows,” and students need to use them. They bridge educational gaps and allow students to truly learn, not only about a subject, but also about life. Pretending to know something is stupidly detrimental. Pretending to know how to perform a task at work can royally screw you over, and pretending that you understand what somebody means can cost you dearly in terms of interpersonal interactions. Asking questions and telling people you don’t know things is how you learn things and come to know them. For me, I find that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know much of anything and that that is perfectly acceptable.

Humans act on instinct, emotions and a whole host of other abstract things that don’t always make a lot of sense. That is why it’s okay to not know why you want to get Chinese food or not know why you’re so tired or not know why you just kissed your best friend. People do weird things, and that’s perfectly normal. It’s even more normal to find that they don’t know why they make the decisions they don’t understand. When it come to making plans, I can honestly say I don’t ever feel like I know anything. While this partially stems from a people-pleasing instinct, it also comes from knowing that I won’t always know the “right” answer. When it comes to interpersonal interactions, I am even worse off at times. You’d think 20 years of living among humans would help me to understand them. It does not. In particular, I rarely understand myself and my decisions. Because of that, I know all I can do is my best based on what I do know and what I can learn in the process.

I must warn against abusing the “I don’t know” option, though. It is not a cop out. It cannot be filled in as an answer on an exam as anything worth credit. It cannot be the answer every time you are thinking of leaving your house. People who use “I don’t know” like that do know something. They know they can get away with being lazy if they disguise it as confusion or ignorance. That is unacceptable. Those people are the reason “I don’t know” gets frowned upon so often. Don’t abuse “I don’t know.” Use it well. Use it to learn. Use it to benefit yourself and others.

I can say honestly that I don’t know if I managed to get my point across here. I have only lifted my hands from the keys once. I can say, however, that I know this is an important thing to think about and that I hope it at least brings some awareness to an “I don’t know” shamer out there.


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