My COVID-19 Diary: I don’t know?

In my personal life, I rarely say, “I don’t know.”   It’s not that I know a lot, far from it, but I’ve always felt that when you’re in a conversation with somebody, you are there to contribute. 

Before I explain, one exception…. 

I have one exception to this rule. It’s a deviation I have learned over long experience. 

When asked, “Do you know where the ______  is?”  or “Have you seen the ______?”; unless I know exactly where the item is, and I can go get the _______ and produce it to the delight of the seeker who posed the question, I do not offer an opinion or admit the last place I saw it.  Here the thing young readers, this question is a trap!  When you offer a theory or admit that you saw the “kitchen shears” (in my house,  ______,  is usually scissors) on the dining room table earlier in the day, it is now your fault that they’re missing. If you offer a theory about where they might be, it is now your job to find those kitchen shears. In the category of lost items, I have conditioned myself, much as it causes me great emotional turmoil, to respond, “I don’t know.” 

Otherwise, I find it difficult in conversations with family and friends to say, “I don’t know.” 

It’s like rowing a boat where two people each have an oar,  if one of them doesn’t pull their oar equally, the boat’s simply going to go around in circles. If we’re talking, it’s my job to pull my oar by sharing my thoughts. Someone I admire once told me, “When asked a question, you aren’t always expected to give an answer, sometimes all that’s required is to talk about the question.”  I’ve consistently tried to deliver on that requirement. If you expected me to say “I don’t know” why did you ask me?  

Perhaps it’s in my DNA. My ancestors, who valued conversation with near-religious reverence, huddled around a turf fire in a dark pub in Galway, wouldn’t countenance,  “I don’t know”. Even if I have no expertise in an area, I’m willing to give you my thoughts or venture an opinion on what I think the answer might be. I make sure to provide context, never asserting that what I’m about to declare is empirical truth.  “I read an article about”, “something like that once happened to me or to somebody I know”, or “I don’t know much about this but here’s what I think” are typical sentence starters in these circumstances. Verbalizing a theory or planting a flag somewhere in the vicinity of the query is something owed to the person on the other end of the conversation. My position is that people who say “I don’t know” are refusing to hold up their end of the chat. It’s the price one pays for admission to the discussion right?

This is a quirk of my personal life, how I am, ‘at home’.  In my PROFESSIONAL life, however, as a school leader, I have learned that it is sometimes essential to say “I don’t know.”  This deserves more conversation. But we want to know, in what ways are your personal selves the opposite of your work selves, and you’re not permitted to say, “I don’t know.”   

About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
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