“Um … I couldn’t understand half the words they used,” she replied.
“Well, did you ask?”
“Did you ask what those words meant?”
“I didn’t want to waste their time asking dumb questions.”
What she really means is: I’m afraid of looking dumb.
That’s common. Many people like to “save face” by pretending that they can follow a conversation. It’s also ironic. The fear of looking un-knowledgeable prevents people from learning.
At my first newspaper reporting job, my editor told me that the key to great journalism is to never hesitate to ask a question, any question.
“Ask stupid questions,” he said. “Ask the questions that everyone else is afraid to ask.”
I was forced to do this a lot. One day I’d interview a leading physicist, the next morning I’d interview the public housing authority, and that afternoon I’d interview an expert in Middle Eastern affairs. I can’t keep up with all those industries. As a result, I spent a lot of time asking dumb questions.
It took loads of on-the-job training to get comfortable with this. I’d interview a Nobel Prize winning biologist and I’d find myself needing to ask a basic question like “What’s the difference between protein and RNA?”
I SHOULD have already known that. My job includes prepping for an interview by doing research ahead of time.
I did my job. I prepped. I researched. But no matter how much I’d prepare, I’d encounter some topic that I have no clue about.
At that point, I’d have two choices: I could waste this interview opportunity by pretending that I knew what I was talking about. Or I could ask basic questions that a freshman ought to know.
“Sorry – what’s an isotope?”
Many people waste opportunities to learn because asking questions feels like a sign of weakness. The more basic their question seems, the more reluctant they feel.
Someone throws out an acronym during conversation. “So then the HUD official said to me …”
The listener wonders what the HUD is … but doesn’t want to ask. The listener smiles and nods. The conversation loses steam. The speaker walks away. An opportunity to learn is lost.
There’s wisdom to not wasting people’s time with questions you can easily discover yourself. (Rule of thumb: Can you Google it later?) But if you’re mid-conversation with someone, there’s no harm in asking him or her to clarify a statement.
“What does that acronym stand for? What does that word mean? What does that organization do? Why does A lead to B?”
The fear of “looking un-knowledgeable” can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Go ahead: ask basic questions. Pose the highly sophisticated follow-up: “Um, can you go over that again?” By admitting that you don’t know the answer, you’ll learn more than you ever expected.
Thanks to Brett Jordan for today’s photo.