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OPINION | GARY SMITH: “I don’t know” is the kind of phrase people ought to embrace

“I don’t know” a phrase more people should embrace by Gary Smith | April 7, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.

I have come to the conclusion that the most useful phrase in the English language is "I don't know."

This is, of course, a sweeping generalization that covers the population as a whole. Results may vary by demographic. For example, as I am a man of a "certain age," the most useful phrase is probably "Do you know where the restroom is?" But "I don't know" is definitely a strong No. 2, and if we use the same ranked-choice voting that states like Maine employ, it pretty briskly moves to the top of the overall list.

I'm fairly confident that "I don't know" is also the most useful phrase in a lot of other languages. In fact, I'm sure lots of people who don't speak English are probably wishing they'd used it more frequently. Say, when someone asked, "Do you think it would be a good idea to invade an eastern European neighbor?"

That's the beauty of "I don't know." It's so versatile.

For instance, it can be the legitimate answer to a question. "What's the square root of 349?" "I don't know." That phrase also implies "and I absolutely lack the skill set to figure it out. That's what the calculator on your phone is for."

It can also communicate a strong sense of frustration tinged with displeasure with the human race as a whole. "Why did that driver cross two lanes of traffic and turn left on a red without a blinker, almost nailing a pedestrian in the crosswalk?" "(Sigh) I don't know."

The phrase can also help convey great wonderment. "How does a streaming service know exactly what movie I want to watch and so quickly recommend it to me?"

"I don't ... know." The pause there lets everyone know you're a bit in awe yourself and are more than willing to believe it's the result of magic. Or that you're prefer to believe in magic over an algorithm some 16-year-old came up with in his mom's basement, which led to his now owning the island of Maui.

And then there is "I don't know" as a graceful way to say, well, "no."

"Man, that gas station sushi that has no expiration date on it sure looks good. I think it would be a great idea for us to get it as a car snack before we drive five straight hours in a remote part of the country which likely doesn't have roadside rest areas?"

"I don't know ... "

Around my house we are also familiar with the use of "I don't know" as an interjection to communicate a certain level of, say we say, skepticism. As in, "So the NFL quarterback is saying he misled us about his vaccination status because he did, I don't know, some 'research...'"

But there is one instance in which I feel like I personally need to do a better job of using the phrase "I don't know." And that's when ... I don't know. As in, I don't really have any information or expertise in the matter and I'm going to decline to substitute my ill-formed opinion in place of information. Like, the square root of 349. And, likely, lots of other stuff.

Perhaps it's just a product of my upbringing, where we were invited to have all the opinions we wanted, as long as we had the good sense to keep them to ourselves. However, we seem to have entered a time when the line between opinion and information is almost indistinguishable. At the same time, we've maxed the ability to communicate both.

So the people who a few years ago were untrained but suddenly expert epidemiologists smoothly transitioned to being untrained but expert legal scholars, military strategists, international diplomats and business tycoons. And even those who were very, very good at some things – say, electric automobile manufacturing or having pictures taken of them – have decided they're experts at lots more stuff.

Despite where the world seems to be pushing us, I feel like I, and perhaps a few other folks, should be a little more inclined to admit that not only do we not have the answers, we're not sure we understand the question all that well. For instance, I'm not really sure what a "square root" is or why you'd want to know.

And yet, every day, we see more examples of folks not following that concept.

Why? I don't know.

Print Headline: This I know


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