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I Don’t Know
Mom with a View

I Don’t Know

How I wish everyone would learn to say this more often.


“Teach your tongue to say I don’t know” (Talmud, Berachos 4a). This is such a wise teaching that I am reminded of constantly in daily interactions. It’s good parenting advice, business advice and works for friendships as well. I think of it when I go to the doctor and am impressed when he consults his colleagues (and less so when he – or she – doesn’t!) I think of it when a customer service representative consults his superior (and when he – or she – insists that the policy can’t be changed!) and I thought of it recently after two air travel experiences.

In the most recent one, after landing at our destination and watching the baggage carousel go round and round and round, about 20 passengers remained standing while no further baggage made the journey. We went to inquire of the airlines.

“It’s coming soon,” we were told and we went back to wait. Ten minutes later and less patient than the other passengers (or with a greater sense of the value of time – take your pick!) we went back again. “It’s here,” they assured us.

More time passed and again we trudged to the office. This time the information was new. “Go to a different carousel.”

“Progress,” we thought as we dutifully marched over to Carousel 2. The waiting continued until finally an announcement was made. “The baggage seems to be delayed. You can choose to continue to wait for it or you can give us your address and we will have it delivered.”

We didn’t think further waiting was the full credit response so we chose option two. It turns out that they had indeed scanned the bags and they were on the ground but they had no idea where! The bags were eventually delivered to our hotel – 12 hours later.

Anyone can make mistakes (I confess to having made some myself!). I just wanted them to acknowledge it. We could have left the airport an hour and a half earlier if they had just said, “They’re here but we can’t find them” and taken our addresses at that time. I was less frustrated with the missing bags than by their refusal to own up to the reality of the situation.

The same thing happened on a flight in January where our connecting flight was delayed and delayed and delayed with stories of delays and storms and waiting for pilots and missing crews, only to be cancelled 5 hours later when all hope of most other modes of transportation was eliminated, not to mention the tremendous waste of time. If they would have acknowledged immediately that the connecting flight was cancelled our plans could have been adjusted accordingly and our time spent more productively.

Our sages also teach us that “a bashful person can’t learn.” If we’re afraid to admit we don’t know, our progress in understanding will be limited. Even our young children don’t really think we know everything (and our adolescents know that we certainly don’t!) and can accept “I don’t know” as an answer. We are better parents, teachers, colleagues and friends when we admit when we are out of our depth, when we don’t understand, when we need help.

Thank God, the experiences with the airlines, while annoying hassles, didn’t have any lasting or serious consequences, but a doctor who’s afraid to admit she doesn’t know, an arrogant teacher, a CEO who “knows it all” (not to mention politicians who are in a category all by themselves) can all make choices with much more lasting ramifications. “Teach your tongue to say I don’t know” is a great piece of advice. We should all accustom ourselves to heeding it.

July 6, 2015

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Beverly Margolis, July 11, 2015 10:28 PM

How else do we learn?

When a person tells me information that I know is wrong, I don't jump down their throats. As a creative thinker, I've been trained to ask them questions. "From where did you get that idea?" Or "That's very interesting, I'd never heard it that way" and then the same question "where did you get that from?"
Just saying (or worse, screaming!) instantly shuts any hope of a conversation. I can always be wrong so I really do want to know where their (to me) faulty information came from.
There are many topics of which I am unaware, so I never hesitate to say "I don't know." There is no shame in learning new information.
There are times when I have to say that I don't know but offer to find out. With the advent of the Internet and mobile access to search engines, it is easy to ask the search engines for the fact of which I am ignorant.
I'm a retired support engineer, I'd often have to look up the answer to the customer's query. I never tried to wing it just to get rid of a customer. I'd even offer to call back if I didn't have a good answer for them at the time. At the same time I expanded my personal knowledge base.
It is a puzzle to me that people will "fake" it rather than admit that they do not know something.
There is so much in this universe to learn, why not learn it?

(7) Anonymous, July 10, 2015 7:33 PM

so true

i always say that i do not know, if i do not know. that is why i get annoyed when people do not accept what i say.

i find that people are embarassed to admit that they do not know or afraid that people will think them stupid or uninformed. i do not think so. i am happier to hear this as then i can continue to look for the answer and not waste my time.

(6) Israel Jacob Bas, July 10, 2015 8:46 AM

Even a Rebbe can say i don't know

Many years ago i took my little son to Reb Yankele,the then Rebbe here in Antwerp for his opinion and a blessing.My son had a problem with his hearing and a specialist recommended an operation.The Rebbe was at first silent for a while then replied that he doesn't know what advice to give.His gabbe (assistant) politely reminded Reb Yankele that he is a Rebbe who may not just say "i don't know".Then the Rebbe said that we should wait a while and not go through with the op.Some time later when the specialist again examined my son he was surprised to see that the problem had dissapeared on it's own and actually no op was neccessary.

(5) Ruth, July 9, 2015 10:38 PM


A person who express a wrong opinion should be corrected or admonished but should not be considered as stupid enough for silence. We all express wrong opinions which we considered right and might not turn out rightly as we expected for one reason or the other; even God regretted making man. It does not necessarily mean "I don't know" it could mean insufficient information was expressed or wrong conclusions are made or the person is not well understood. There is also human freewill element to everything. After creation, God said everything is good, then the chaos; He told Samuel I have found a fine man in the tribe of Benjamin"Saul" and he turned out to be disobedient, Killer of prophets,and possessed. We should not assume others don't know but should try and understand their point of view and where guidance is needed, we should gladly offer it instead of been judgemental.

(4) Teri, July 9, 2015 4:11 PM

Follow-up with...

I agree that it's important that people admit that they don't know something rather than give you inaccurate information. However, I think that it's equally important that the sentence following "I don't know" should be "But I'll find out for you", particularly when dealing with a co-worker or customer service.

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