i don’t know!


I Don't Know

THOSE three little words create an irritation in me almost every time I hear them.
That irritation is because they are most times put to use in the wrong context.
The right context, of course, is one in which the person uttering them is devoid of a piece of information that has been requested of them, incapable of procuring it, and most important of all, takes a small breath to follow the three little words with a more helpful response-holder.
Included on the list of ‘More Helpful Response-holders’ after the phrase “I don’t know”, we can accept: “Give me five minutes (or insert any sensible period of time there) to find out” or “Let me go and check and get back to you shortly”.
The ones that go, “I don’t know but maybe if you…” are NOT acceptable because the person still doesn’t know and is only engaging in guesswork, which anybody including the questioner, presumably has the capacity to do.
On its own the phrase “I don’t know” is technically correct and I don’t have any issues with it.
Unless someone has been looking at their watch literally seconds before you ask them for the time, they are fully justified if they respond with, “I don’t know.”
You cannot know what time it is all the time; but when someone like me asks you “What time is it?” we are just using the shorter version of the command, “Please tell me the time.”
That requires you, the recipient of the command, to become immediately resourceful at finding out the time and then responding with an answer that is not just technically correct – as “I don’t know” might be under the circumstances.
Your answer should be useful and respectfully worthy of the trust I have displayed in your abilities to provide said information, by asking you said question.
There are people who urgently need to learn this, for the sake of my mental health and their physical one.
One such fellow, employed near me but occupying a lower rung of the employment ladder on which I myself am precariously located, is yet to appreciate how dangerous that response is to his very life when he unthinkingly delivers it about three times a day.
I am determined to make him learn the proper use of that response, and have therefore taken to typing out this blog post here in full.
This particular chap, for instance, needs to firmly realise that by virtue of his employment in a role that requires him to fetch, drop and do such other things to and fro in ways none of us can predict, he will never know everything.
The phrase “I don’t know”, therefore, might as well be his job profile in three words.
His is the type of job in which every day is a blank sheet. He cannot know what he is going to be asked to do, where he is being asked to go, what is in the envelopes he is conveying, where his superior colleagues are, and other such pertinent details.
In order to carry out the tasks for which he is paid a salary, therefore, he is supposed to work out the answers to questions related to the above, and act accordingly.
But every time I summon him and ask something such as, “Is the Forex Bureau up the road open at this hour?” his immediate response is, “I don’t know.”
It is always such an automatic and emphatic “I don’t know” that I am always impressed by it. The only problem is that with him this forms a complete statement that he normally shows no intention of following up.
If I don’t follow my query up with a meaningful glare or another question, he actually will leave my presence and continue to other tasks – as if by stating that he does not know something, he has earned his salary for those few minutes.
Because of his humble education and simple beginnings, however, I allow him a large number of “I don’t know” responses.
Above him on the employment ladder, however, are more educated people who also employ these three words in a work situation with almost the same finality to their tone of voice.
When I asked her last week why some figures in a spreadsheet were not adding up right, the accountant who had created and updated the spreadsheet responded with, “I don’t know”.
We looked at each other for a few seconds during which I have no clue what was going through her mind, while on my part I tried to decipher
I Don't Know 2whether she was daring me by simply going quiet after that ‘I don’t know’.
Eventually, I struck up the courage to ask, “Who is supposed to know, if you don’t?” and she went into primary school mode (I will explain this later, but you know the symptoms – blank look, glance to the right and the left, shuffle the feet a little, open mouth and close it again without a sound, etcetera etcetera).
It took a while before she went off to make the necessary adjustments, but not too long after that I was in the very same position again – this time with an IT chap who has two degrees to his name yet, “I don’t know.”
And, again, the context was wrong because those three little words were allowed to stand on their own as a final statement made in response to a query of a nature specific to the skills and employment status of that particular IT chap.
And, again, when I eventually threw down a challenge I met with silence and that hushed shuffling (whose origin I will attempt to explain on another day, but whose other symptoms include a quivering mouth, incoherent mumblings and looks thrown askance into distant corners of rooms as if to find the answer written there.)
When he eventually left to find the answer to my question, I asked myself what had led to so many people thinking that this was an acceptable stand-alone response.
I don’t know, but… (go back to the top of this post for the right context).

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