There's A Big Problem With Saying 'I Don't Know' -- Here's A Better Answer

In response to a Freakonomics podcast about why people should be more willing to say “I don’t know,” former U.S. Navy officer Carlos Jativa brings up a good counterpoint. There are ways to admit ignorance while also taking responsibility for finding an answer, as they teach at the Naval Academy.

He writes into the Freakonomics blog:

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.

Jativa makes a smart point, but the Freakonomics guys also know what they’re talking about. Indeed, their main point is that saying “I don’t know” — in one form or another — is a lot more useful than making up an answer. As Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner write in their book, “Think Like A Freak,” “[U]ntil you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to.”

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