When to say “I don’t know”

Many years ago, I taught middle school math. One day a student asked me a (non-math related) question that I didn’t know the answer to, so I told her that I didn’t know. She then got annoyed with me because apparently, teachers are supposed to know everything.

I was reminded of this recently when seeing comments about hiring people because they weren’t afraid to admit in an interview that they didn’t know something. Apparently this is somewhat uncommon, which suggests that an awful lot of people are trying to BS their way through interviews.

Of course, nobody wants to hear “I don’t know” to every question, but assuming that you’re qualified for the job you presumably can answer most of them. This applies to working as well; I’d much rather you tell me that you don’t know how to do the task you’re assigned than pretend you already know and get in over your head.

So, here are some acceptable ways to say “I don’t know”:

  • I’m about 80% confident that this is the answer, but I’d have to double check to be sure.
  • I haven’t worked on that functionality, but Jim would know. Let me conference him in.
  • I can’t give a firm deadline for when the project will be completed because we’re waiting on feedback from QA. I’ll follow up with them and see when they expect to be done testing.

Here are some less acceptable ways to do it:

  • I don’t remember. [And I’m too lazy to look it up]
  • I don’t know. [And I can’t be bothered to find out]
  • It was exactly 1,429.3. [Or some other BS answer]

Simply put, if you don’t know something but can find out the answer or direct me to the person better suited to answer the question, that’s just fine. If you are the person who should know the answer, but for some reason you don’t, then you should be finding out; don’t just shrug it off or (worse) make something up. Nobody (well, except apparently some 7th graders) expects you to know everything, but if you’re being lazy or BSing the answer, people won’t be particularly eager to work with you.

tldr: You don’t have to know or remember everything; just be honest.

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