STUMP » Articles » How Not to Look Like a Complete Ass: Saying "I Don't Know" When You Don't Know » 21 January 2015, 01:36

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

How Not to Look Like a Complete Ass: Saying "I Don't Know" When You Don't Know  

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21 January 2015, 01:36

In prior editions of how not to look like an ass, I primarily highlighted political dumbassery, but also noted some examples from my own life (such as people feeling the need to get creative in their remarks at funerals.)

In the first one I basically told people to keep their mouths shut. Or more specifically:

Now, I’m not saying that people should shut up all the time. But that they need to actually think through things before they step in it. At least a few seconds.

Well, I just discovered a different level of assery, and it’s not about having unwelcome observations (yes, I know I’m fat. I don’t need other people reminding me).

It’s about pretending to know something, or to understand something, and you don’t.

And yes, this often happens around numbers, but it’s not exclusively about that. For example, not knowing some basic facts of life are a special aspect of Vox. Especially Matt Ygleisias.

But you don’t have to take my word for admitting not knowing what you don’t know. Let’s go to the experts about not knowing!

Like Stephan Dubner

Grant: Well, you certainly accomplished those goals. You start with the premise that there are three words that all of us should probably utter more often than we do, which are, “I don’t know.” Where did that come from?

Dubner: Well, I think that came primarily from the fact that Steve Levitt, my co-author, lives in the world of academia, where you are. I’m a writer. I’ve been a journalist for my whole adult life. And both of us wouldn’t have a job if we pretended we knew all the answers all the time. The whole premise of what I do as a journalist is go find people who know things that are interesting or worthwhile or hidden and ask them about [them], try to find out. So, you have to acknowledge what you don’t know.

He does acknowledge that many people are in the position where they will look bad if they say they don’t know (though the “slick” way to handle such issues is to say that more study is needed), but many items are not that one is put in a public situation.

Think Like a Freak, which the the subject of the interview, is a good bathroom book, and I don’t mean that as a slight. I mean it is a short book, that comes in chunks, and is very easy to read. It also has good advice, such as being aware of when you don’t know something. It’s okay not to know (and then go find out.)

Some better books about how people think and behave are by Dan Ariely, who has done a bunch of research into all the ways people seem to be (or actually are) irrational and dishonest, and he has some advice surrounding that. I recommend two of his books: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty and The Upside of Irrationality. This article I wrote back in 2011 titled “Know Thyself and Others” covers Ariely’s first two books on human “irrationality” and “Everybody Cheats…at least a little bit covers his book on dishonesty. They’re fascinating reading. And may help you not be a complete ass.

It’s okay to say you don’t know:

Look, these people did not know what the word “suffrage” meant. That’s okay — if they used the word “franchise” instead, people would be wondering what women’s issues had to do with McDonald’s.

It is okay to ASK if you don’t know.

I do this all the time.

But too often, people re put in the position where if they acknowledge their ignorance, they are back in The Emperor’s New Clothes…. if they admit they have no clue what people are talking about, they’ll be thought idiots!

Yes, but if you claim to know something that just isn’t so, everybody will know you’re an idiot. Ignorance is not fatal – one can learn. But if you’re so stupid that you don’t know your knowledge is wrong… that’s harder to fix.

Thus, the recent survey results when asking people if they supported labeling food that contained DNA.

A recent survey conducted by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that 80.44% of respondents supported a government policy mandating labels on foods containing DNA. Not GMOs. DNA, the genetic material contained in every living thing known to science and practically every food, GMO or otherwise.

Proposed label:

WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.

It smacks of the Dihydrogren monoxide trick – use people’s unwillingness to be aware of their ignorance to make fun of them.

If someone asked, “I’ve never heard of this dihydrogen monoxide — does it have a simpler name?”

The interlocutor would have to admit they’re talking about water.

Indeed, people often use ‘hard’ words to look smarter, but that can backfire.

People who embellish their writing with long, complicated words are seen as less intelligent by readers, according to a 2006 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

The workplace, of course, is full of people trying too hard to look smart. Dianna Booher coached a manager who tried to impress others by learning a new word every day and using it all day. “He’d say, ‘I’m going to use the word ‘ubiquitous’ today,’ and he’d use it three or four different ways in meetings, in hallway conversations, and sometimes it fit and sometimes it didn’t,” says Ms. Booher, a Colleyville, Texas, author and consultant on business communication. Rather than burnishing his image, “he became a laughing stock,” she says.

Others try to project intelligence by talking too much, and too loudly—“hiding inside a barrage of words, hoping no one will notice that they don’t know anything,” says Lisa D. Parker, president of Heads Up Coaching and Consulting in New York.

No, it doesn’t work. The way to impress people that you know stuff is:

1. Actually knowing some stuff
2. Being able to explain, simply and appropriately, the stuff you do know

It’s okay not to know some things, but yes, you do actually need to have a solid set of facts in your brain to be able to reason. You can’t merely google everything — you don’t even know where to start to reason.

But how to know things is for a later post.

Right now, here is my advice:

1. If you don’t know, it’s fine to say you don’t know
2. ASK
3. If a person can’t explain themselves cogently, they probably don’t know either

Go and be asses no more!


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