“I don’t know” is not a set of dirty words


I was travelling on the train to Bangalore and a young girl on her way to her first job was sitting opposite me. A middle-aged man sitting next to her began talking to her. Being her first trip to Bangalore, she asked a few questions about Bangalore and the man next to her was giving all answers instantaneously and with complete confidence and authority. Only, the answers were far from correct. “Should I get down in Cantonment or the City Railway Station?” “This train does not go to Cantonment so you get down in City Station.” Fact check: The train would pass and halt at the Cantonment Station. “From the City Station can I go to Koramangla in Metro?” “Yes, Metro is the best way to travel. Just opposite the Railway station is the Metro station and the Metro will take you to Koramangala” Fact check: There is no metro to Koramangala. Currently the nearest Metro Station to Koramangala perhaps in the Indiranagar Metro Station about 6kms away or perhaps the Lalbagh or Southend Metro Station which cannot be called ‘near Koramangala’ He had an answer for every question on Bangalore, politics, sports and anything under discussion. Opinions apart, he was factually wrong on most answers. Later getting a chance to edge into the conversation, I suggested to her the proper way to get to her place, without putting the other passenger down. I wonder what makes us hesitate to say, “I don’t know” when we don’t know. How many times have you asked for directions on the road only to be given wrong directions? Does being an adult mean we should have answers for all questions thrown at us? What is the harm in admitting that we don’t know something? Perhaps we feel we look foolish or ignorant or both when we say, “I don’t know”. This is especially true when someone younger than us asks a question to which we don’t have an answer. Just give an answer, damn the correctness of the answer. This occurs as much with strangers as with people we know very well. As adults we believe, we ‘should’ have an answer for every question put to us. We can’t afford to look foolish in front of our children, can we? So give them an answer, any answer will do. But that is short-sightedness at work. What happens when the children find out the correct answer from some other source? Isn’t our credibility destroyed? “I don’t know” is not a set of dirty words whether we tell it to a stranger or to our loved ones. Admitting our ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of unless the question is posed in our domain of expertise. When a child asks a question for which we do not have an answer, “I don’t know, shall we find out together?”, “That’s an interesting question, I have never given it a thought”, “I would like to know the answer too” is a better way of handling it rather than giving a wrong answer. Even in an adult to adult conversation admitting to ignorance about something is nothing to be ashamed of. We don’t ‘need to have known everything’. There is too much information and knowledge out there. What we don’t know far exceeds what we know by a very large margin and there is no loss of dignity in admitting that.

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