12/03/2013 09:54 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015

7 Times It's Better To Say 'I Don't Know'


Sure, we all want to seem smart and worldly, but why are we so afraid to say, "I don't know"? We were so inspired by the way Leah Hager Cohen answers that question in her new book I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't), we came up with a few other instances best met with that particular phrase.

By Amy Shearn

1. "I'm flying out of O'Hare, right?"

There is a certain satisfaction to be had from responding with an affirmative answer when your boss asks you a question, particularly when the question is worded with the expectant syntax of "… right?" Yes, you want to say. Yes, right, you're right, I'm right, we're right, and if you want your plane to fly out of O'Hare, then yes, it's O'Hare. Unless it's not. In which case, even if you were 70 percent sure the plane was flying out of O'Hare Airport, nothing you could do would move that plane 100 percent across town, all the way from Midway Airport, where it actually is taking off. So no matter how much you want to answer "…right?" with "Right!" -- a better answer is: "I don't know. I think that's right, but let me quickly check that for you." Your boss will be saying, "Phew," all the way to the (correct) airport.

2. The millionth "Why?"

Small children are renowned for many things -- believing in the Tooth Fairy, restoring their parents' senses of wonder, ruining international flights -- and chief among their talents is the Epic Why. My 2-year-old son is a Why prodigy, skipping the obvious and potentially answerable (Why can't I have jelly beans for dinner?, Why is the sky blue?) and going right for the mind-bending. "Why is her mommy her mommy?" he might inquire at the park. Sometimes these forays into William S. Burroughs-esque absurdity verge on the profound, as in, "Why are some people mean?"

I tried with that one. I stumbled over myself, explaining that some people were never taught to be nice, or that perhaps no one was ever kind to them, or that maybe they were actually afraid and trying to psychically protect themselves or that possibly they didn't have a nap that day. What I should have done was look into his quizzical little face and tell him the truth: "Sweetie, I don't know." Because I can't actually teach him why some people are mean. What I can do is teach him that sometimes even parents don't have the answers. Sometimes we are all, even wise grown-ups who know about jelly beans and aerospace, left wondering, Why?

3. "What are you doing Saturday?"

Trust me, I know you are a generous soul, and that most of the time you would love to watch a friend's twins so she can get her hair cut or be the third wheel on an awkward not-a-date-first-date-hang-out. Still, when someone asks, "What are you doing this weekend?," the proper, self-preserving answer is, "I'm not sure yet. Why?" Juuuuust in case the follow-up to that question was, "Nothing? Oh good, do you want to help me sort through my storage unit?" It's not mean-spirited or selfish to give yourself a minute before committing. Friends are friends; but also, Saturdays are Saturdays. Which friends understand.

4. "How should we re-wire this lamp?"

If you ask the Internet about it, any schmo can easily re-wire a thrift-store lamp, build a website or learn nuclear physics just by watching relevant YouTube videos. And while you could spend hours researching how to fix a problem you barely comprehend, sometimes it's much faster (and safer -- hello, electrical shocks!) to ask an expert.

5. "What's your favorite Blues Hammer song?"

We love Jimmy Kimmel for many reasons, not least of which is his Lie Witness News series, a regular segment that features people so unwilling to admit ignorance that they'll fake expertise on things that, um, don't exist. If looking foolish isn't enough of a deterrent, we've got another great reason to confess you're unfamiliar with something: People love introducing others to the things they discover first. When your friend brings up the artist Marina Abramovic in conversation, you're doing him a favor by asking, "Can you remind me who that is?" instead of gushing, "I adore her paintings" (hint: she's not a painter). He'll enjoy telling you about his experience at one of her performances, and by the end of the conversation, you'll know more than you did when it started.

6. "These last five dates have been amazing -- why don't you come to my cabin this weekend?"

If only there were an answer between yes and no. Because when the intriguing guy you've been seeing wants to whisk you away to the woods for the weekend, your heart might be shouting, "Yes! Yes! Yes!," while also panicking at the prospect of spending 48 hours in close quarters with someone who's never seen you without makeup. Saying, "I don't know, can I give you an answer tomorrow?" gives you a minute to take a deep breath and decide what you really want.

7. "When will I feel better?"

If a friend is suffering, it's tempting to tell her that everything will be okay in a month, in a week, tomorrow at noon, right now. Except really, who knows the magic equation of when heartbreak heals, when grieving stops? Putting a time limit on grieving is dishonest and unfair. The only comforting thing to say is, "I don't know. I don't know when you will feel better. But I know that you will."

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