“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.