Saying “I Don’t Know” in the Navy, the Classroom, and Beyond

The best part of publishing a new book — besides the media blitz — is learning which stories resonate with readers and podcast listeners, and how.

One great example is the book’s second chapter, “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language,” which is about how  people are reluctant to say “I don’t know” when in fact they don’t know the answer to a question or the solution to a problem.

We explored this topic in last week’s podcast, and I wanted to share with you some of the most interesting feedback.

A secondary school teacher in Germany named Carsten Vogel write:

In my job, students sometimes ask difficult questions and expect the teacher to always know the answer. Unfortunately we don’t — which means we’re tempted to make something up that could possibly be correct or take a wild guess so we don’t have to admit that we really don’t know. But I’ve learned that it’s okay to say “I don’t know,” and that most students will respect your honesty, especially if you tell them that you will make sure to find out for them.

So I can definitely relate to the difficulty of saying these three magical words, but I’ve also been able to experience that it gets easier with practice. People (in my case, students) will appreciate the sincerity, and it keeps you humble 😉

Mollie Cohen passed along an interesting column by James daSilva at SmartBlog on Leadership:

Keep this in mind when I say that, having gone to dozens of panels over three years at the Milken Institute Global Conference, I’m having trouble recalling any panelist ever saying, “I don’t know” in response to a question about a relevant, if tricky, aspect of the business. And I’m certain I’ve never heard anyone say it multiple times like J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler did Wednesday during his interview session. … Drexler polled the audience a number of times, and repeatedly went to one of his staff for answers he couldn’t remember or for insights into his personality and leadership. … But, and this is what caught me off-guard, he twice said “I don’t know” in response to questions about the future — one about the broader future of the industry in a Web and mobile era, and the other about specific J. Crew expansion plans. These weren’t a version of “no comment”; instead, each answer lasted a few minutes, but with the understanding that, well, Drexler wasn’t really sure, but darned if he doesn’t have an opinion, a hope and/or a plan either way. He was thinking about the question, neither avoiding it nor thinking he had solved it. And that’s fine — saying “I don’t know” doesn’t have to be so scary, legally or otherwise. More of us should acknowledge that we cannot reliably predict the future. Other times, “I don’t know” is a welcome acknowledgement of the complexity and contextual problems in life.

Carlos Jativa writes:

I am a former Naval officer and currently work in finance and operations. To this day, I am still amazed at how people rarely say “I Don’t Know” to a question they feel they are supposed to know the answer to.  More often than not, you’ll get an answer that is more lip service than it is informative. My personal view is the greater the ego/power/confidence a position or situation requires, the more likely a person is going to avoid using this answer.

My perspective is based on my background. I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and during our plebe (freshman) year, we were only allowed to use five basic responses to a direct question: 1) Yes sir; 2) No sir; 3) No excuse, sir; 4) Aye, aye sir; and 5) I’ll find out, sir.  The fifth response is used instead of saying “I don’t know” because the latter implies a sense of uselessness/incompetency/helplessness.  “I’ll find out” gives the impression that while I currently don’t know the exact answer this second, I am able to get one to you ASAP. I am assuming people whose situation or position require them to be on top of everything don’t want to give off the impression they aren’t, so they will avoid saying “I don’t know” at all costs. Think of a parent answering a homework question from their child or CEO answering questions from an investor.

To this day, I hate saying, “I don’t know,” so when I am in a situation where I don’t know the answer to a question, I revert to my Navy training. While I don’t always use the response of, “I’ll find out,” I often use a similar response, such as, “Let me get you the updated numbers” so it gives the impression that not only do I have access to the answers at all times, but if you give me a second, I will get you a better answer. I find my seniors don’t view answers like this as a sign of weakness.

In short, it’s all about our ego and the impression we are trying to make. In the movie U-571, Harvey Keitel privately chides Matthew McCounaughey for telling the crew he doesn’t know how to handle a situation. Keitel tells McCounaughey that as captain of a ship, he always knows the answer even when he doesn’t, because the crew needs to be reassured their leader is 100% certain the actions the ship are taking are correct.

I would say “I Don’t Know” is the opposite of getting an emphatic answer to a question.  I know a guy who is so confident that if you asked him what 2+2 is and he told you 5, you would believe him. On the flip side, an emphatic, “I don’t know” will give people the impression that you don’t know and to stop asking.

Dave Oldham writes:

I wanted to suggest you reconsider your thinking about why people in companies (middle managers) don’t readily admit to not knowing things.

At the top of your podcast, you said that the best advice to job seekers is to never say “I don’t know” in an interview, and you agreed with that. What you may be missing is that every day that a middle manager is at the office is effectively another interview for the next internal job listing or promotion that may come up in their current company. Admitting that they don’t know something is on par with saying that they don’t know something in an interview, thereby hurting their chances at getting a recommendation from their boss or others in the organization and keeping them in their current position going forward. So what you are effectively saying is that anyone with any inkling of motivation would continue to be in interview or “impress the boss” mode would be better off not admitting ignorance, and only those perennial mediocre people who are too comfortable in their jobs or unmotivated to advance within the company would be better off admitting that they didn’t know.

I am not sure whether you or the researcher you interviewed considered that angle. The story might be better analyzed if you determined how many times an adult admitted to not knowing in a social setting or one where their livelihoods didn’t hinge on their responses.

And finally, a listener named Gustav (“a.k.a. The Modern Nomad”) commented on the section of the podcast about unanswerable and nonsense questions, based on research by Amanda Waterman:

On your podcast “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language,” you asked kids which is heavier: red or yellow. I could forgive the children for not knowing the answer quite yet, but this question does indeed have an unambiguous answer. Yellow is heavier than red. The photons in yellow light have a higher energy state than their red counterparts, and as Einstein taught us, energy is mass. So yellow light is more massive than red. So if we see “heavy” as being “massive,” then yellow is definitively heavier than red, albeit it very very very very little.

Oh, and I’m not a physicist, so before you tell the world about this, do check with someone who knows this because honestly, I don’t know for certain, perhaps the five hardest words.

Nor do I have any idea if Gustav is really right — but I like the way he thinks!

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  1. Bob's Your Uncle says:

    In the Corps at Texas A&M we were told to say, “Sir, not being informed to the highest level of accuracy, I hesitate to articulate in fear that I may deviate from the true course of rectitude. In short, sir, I’m a very dumb fish and do not know, sir”

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  2. Nosybear says:

    There’s a very dangerous extension to the problem: If you are honest enough to admit you don’t know, you are penalized in our business world. I don’t know are also the three most valuable words in the English language, as they are the beginnings of knowledge. During the fifteen hundred years of the Dark Ages, we knew the answers. It was only when people began to say, I really don’t know, that we began to progress. Which brings us back to the danger/opportunity: When we honestly don’t know, we have the opportunity to learn, as long as the boss doesn’t take your “I don’t know” as an opportunity to save personnel costs.

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    • James says:

      Wish I could upvote this more than once.

      It’d be interesting if, instead of assuming (as they so often do) that all people are a uniform mass, the Freakonomics guys would look at why some of us have no problem at all saying “I don’t know”. And indeed, have based entire careers on finding things we don’t know, so we can learn.

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  3. Joe McDaniel says:

    I had a recent “I don’t know” episode. I had quoted a second-hand, at best, number on the students requiring remediation at a particular college. The number I quoted was 90%. The president of the college took me to task for besmirching “his” student body. Feeling that I was perhaps guilty of repeating gossip, I sought out answers including asking the president. No response from him, but I did find a number of 86% in the 2010-2011 school year. That is close enough to 90%, I think to deserve an apology. At least I “checked my work,” if belatedly.

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  4. Nathan says:

    As a correction for Gustav, photons don’t have any mass, so neither red nor yellow have any mass, especially if we think of red and yellow as subjective experiences rather than their physical causes.

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    • James says:

      But remember that mass and energy are interchangeable, and indeed, the masses of subatomic particles are often stated in MeV (millions of electron-volts), which is a unit of energy. The energy in photons can be converted to particles which have mass, see e.g. here:

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      • Robert says:

        Photons really do not have mass. And the “masses” of subatomic particles that are quoted in MeV are actually the rest masses (m_0) times the speed of light squared. Both you and Gustav are using the famous E = mc^2 equation, but that’s not really the full equation for the energy of a particle. It is E^2 = (mc^2)^2 + (pc)^2, where p is the momentum. The first term is zero for a photon.

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  5. Matthew Glencoe says:

    I definitely saw this dynamic in play in the corporate world in two ways:
    1) Being astounded with how well someone could roll quantities and characteristics of products off the top of their head, thinking, “How does he keep all that up there???”
    2) My acknowledging when I did not know the precise answers to a particular, unanticipated, question.

    Now as a marketing consultant, I am not at all shy about saying I don’t know the answer, but I do know the questions, which is actually more valuable.

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  6. Christopher G. Barsa says:

    I have been saying the phrase “I don’t know” all my life, I had a friend say to me in high school why do you say “I don’t know” so much. My answer back then was “I don’t know” I do. Then I heard a rare interview with Jim Morrison of the Doors. During the interview he was asked about the accent of his voice and where it came from, he answered “well, I don’t know” just as he said those words he stated “I don’t know” aren’t those the worst three words in the English language “I don’t know” he said it’s terribly embarrassing those words “I don’t know.” I have always felt, would you rather me lie to you or state something I am not sure about or maybe I would be taking the easy way out and just state “I don’t know” besides there are many answers to a whole host of questions. Unless you have found “the truth” you don’t know. It takes a wiser stronger person to say the phrase “I don’t know” appreciate “the truth” over somebody who thinks they have the answers to everything and “the truth” is always hard to find. Christopher G. Barsa “who feels the phrase “I don’t know, is deeper than you know” remember you aren’t what you eat, you are what you think. Thank you

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  7. Vallin SFAS says:

    Does anyone remember Vicki Carr on the Carol Burnett Show and the spinoff “Mama’s Family”? One time she was shopping for a drain stopper, and her son-in-law asked her what size (diameter) she needed. Her famous reply: “Well how-in-the-hell should *I* know?! I didn’t measure the thing.” That sketch is almost as famous as ‘Went With The Wind’!

    I use that reply. A. LOT!

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  8. nancy says:

    I think it might be innate to not want to say “I don’t know”. When I ask my 3 year daughter a question that she doesn’t know the answer to, she either keeps silent or says “poo poo”. I keep telling her that she’s allowed to say “I don’t know” but she’d still rather stay silent or reply with her favorite “poo poo” default.

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