Thursday, May 10, 2012

"I don't know"

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As an apartment-painter and occasional carpenter for the better part of 13 years in New York, I bought paint and other supplies from a single store that offered a 10% discount.

Ten percent wasn't as well as I might have done when it came to contractor discounts, but the store had one attribute I valued more than any higher discount. The majority of the salesmen in the store were themselves former house painters. That meant that when I ran into some difficulty on the job, I could ask my questions and get answers based on experience and not just the ability to read a label on the paint can.

And above and beyond that were the three words I valued most highly: "I don't know." Usually it was "I don't know but I know where to find out," but even when the words stood alone, "I don't know," it was invaluable. With those three words, I was not forced to pull the label-reading wool over my customers' eyes -- a technique that was bound to lose customers over the long haul. Telling the truth worked better. It inspired trust. It meant that a customer today might be a repeat customer.

What a simple matter and yet how daunting: "I don't know." There's no crime in not knowing. It doesn't imply an unwillingness to find out. It simply means that at the moment a person doesn't know and is unwilling to fabricate answers as a means of looking good... sidestepping the issue, shifting the focus away from the actual issue, maintaining some imagined stature or knowledgeable front, or maintaining "face."

It's such a common and tiresome set of acrobatics -- politicians who know, doctors who know, lawyers who know, colleagues who know, acquaintances who know ... ad nauseam ... when the truth is that, for the moment, they honestly don't know.

What can be done about this tiresome and human activity?

I don't know.

But I guess I'll try not to indulge in it.
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