Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Silly Questions

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ask dumb questionsA friend of mine recently went to a conference filled with some of the sharpest leaders in her industry. When she returned, I asked what she’d learned.

“Um … I couldn’t understand half the words they used,” she replied.

“Well, did you ask?”

“Ask what?”

“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.


  1. says

    Being afraid to ask questions comes from insecurity. Practice will help cure this issue. One of my earliest jobs was as a Sr. Financial Analyst where I had to help put together the budget and report on the variances. I had to ask questions of vice presidents and senior managers. It was pretty intimidating. I overcame my fear because I wanted to do a good job. It helps if you have a compelling reason to overcome your feelings of insecurity.

  2. says

    I work as a journalist, and I often find that asking the dumb question is extremely helpful! I always do my due dilligence of course, in preparation, but I find most of the time if I just level with someone and say, “I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time following. What exactly does that mean?” they’ll usually axe the jargon and explain it in a way that’s clearer.

    I’ve never had anyone get annoyed with me for playing dumb, but I have seen sources (not mine) get really pissed off because a story was written about them that wasn’t accurate, because the reporter just assumed she knew what the deal was, instead of asking for clarification.

    • says

      @Melissa – That’s a great point. I’ve also seen sources get mad because they thought the article didn’t accurately represent what happened … and usually that’s because the reporter doesn’t know much about that topic, nor can she be expected to know a lot about so many topics. Asking loads and loads of basic questions is the only way to even attempt to understand it.

  3. says

    I imagine in journalism this is particularly important…just because you have done prep for the assignment doesn’t mean your everyday reader isn’t a novice in the subject.
    In classrooms/lectures that accept questions, I always ask my questions, no matter how “dumb.” I’ve learned that there’s usually at least a few other people wanting the same answer, but afraid to raise their hands.

  4. says

    Re: Afraid of looking dumb.

    As I usually like to put it, the only dumb question is the one you are too afraid to ask.

    That said, I can understand being timid, especially if you need to ask a question of someone who relishes the opportunity to put you down. When I was in college, I had a history professor who enjoyed doing this. I don’t remember the specifics now, so I’ll make up an example:

    Professor: …And then he defenestrated his victim.
    Me: Didn’t he push his victim out a window?
    Professor [leans forward, staring hard]: That is what “defenestration” means!

    But you know what? I had a lot of fellow students come up to me after the lecture and thank me for asking that question.

    • says

      @jlcollinsnh – Oh man, I don’t remember anymore! An isotope is something they taught us about in high school chemistry or physics, that everyone promptly forgot about as soon as the exam was over.

    • says

      If I recall correctly, an isotope is an atom with a different number of neutrons than the regular version. It could be more electrons too. It’s been a long time since science class.

      Ok wikipedia ftw. It is a different # of neutrons. So if a regular element like hydrogen has 1 neutron in the nucleus. An isotope of hydrogen would have 2 or more.

  5. says

    With the acronym thing sometimes I’ll ask, “Do you mean Heads Up Display?” and then they’ll say, “Oh, no, uh… Housing and Urban Development… it’s like the housing part of government.” There are a lot of acronyms that mean different things. :)

    • says

      @Nicoleandmaggie – It’s AMAZING how many acronyms there are! You know, there’s an organization called “NASA” that stands for the “Nepalese Association of Southeast America?” Seriously. So my Dad will say, “I’m delivering a speech at the NASA Conference …” and everyone gets the wrong idea!

  6. says

    Paula, I couldn’t agree more! This also comes from the girl who’d sit in the front of the class asking professorts/teachers questions to make sure she understood things right haha. Still, it can be tough to ask questions, especially in the face of people who are condescending and talk down to you when you don’t know the answer to everything. It’s tough not to get caught up in that, but I try to remind myself that my end goal is to figure out answers, not to worry about the attitude that I’m getting from the person.

  7. says

    I spent 18 years in newspapers and have been freelancing since 2002. My fear of looking dumb was usually edged out by the fact that if I didn’t understand it I couldn’t write an intelligible story — and I’d rather look dumb in front of an interviewee than my editor.
    But in the rest of my life I was insecure as hell because I didn’t have a college degree. Looking dumb was a real fear. About 10 years ago I specifically cultivated the habit of saying, “I don’t know what that is.” What I found is that most people LOVE to talk about the things that interest them — and that if you listen, you learn stuff. Sometimes it’s even interesting stuff. At the very least, you won’t look dumb in front of your editor.

  8. says

    Here in Thailand it is a national past time not to ask questions. The educational system is very stringently based on rote memorization and standing out (such as by questioning anything) is highly discouraged. It makes it difficult to carry on normal activities at times and misunderstandings are common, even amongst Thais. I thought at first it was the language barrier and that is part of it, but my wife (who is Thai) often has the same problems. Saving face is of paramount importance and even if you ask questions you will often get a wrong answer just because no one here wants to admit “I don’t know”. It has given me a new appreciation of the importance of honesty, candor and the power of asking questions (and actually getting a correct answer).

  9. says

    The funny thing is that most speakers would view a person who’s willing to risk asking the “silly” questions as someone who is confident, secure, and intelligent. Speakers often are looking for cues to guide their words and as someone who’s often appreciated the questions asked of me while I’ve been speaking, it’s a welcomed relief to have someone ask a question.

    No matter how simple it may seem on the surface, those initial questions are breaking the ice and paving the way for others to begin asking questions themselves. Not only is asking questions an opportunity to learn, but it’s also an opportunity to network, connect, and support other people.

  10. says

    It’s amazing how much people love to answer questions. Whenever I felt dumb for having to ask a question, I reminded myself that the person will probably love to share their own knowledge base.

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