A Display of Ignorance


Ah Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.

“I didn’t want to show my ignorance” – that’s the wrong road for an intelligent young woman to travel.

Showing ignorance is how we learn, it’s how we get strangers to tell us their stories, it’s how we experience the world fully.

False sophistication – putting on a cool knowingness – is the road to ignorance.  You should never be afraid to say, “What is that?” No need to preface it with an apology.  I say this from bitter experience, Sarah. 

I wasted some of the best years of my life in pretending to a worldly sophistication that stopped my education right in its tracks.  Even today, people looking at me imagine that I know all sorts of things that in fact I’m stupid about.  […]

Remember this little life lesson, Sarah. Some of the great journalists of our time have found that nothing works so well in gathering information as a display of ignorance.

~   Garrison Keillor responding to a listener’s question

You know that feeling in a conversation when someone has casually mentioned a word/topic/event and you have not a clue what he or she is talking about?  Do you smile and bob your head, hoping that illumination is just around the corner and will arrive in time to rescue you?  Or do you ask for an explanation or clarification?

I’d guess I’ve wasted three decades bobbing and bluffing my way through life. 

At my twentieth high school reunion a guy approached me with exuberant pleasure.  He called my name out from a distance and bounded over like a gazelle. It’s not that I didn’t recognize the man he’s become.  I didn’t know the yearbook picture on his name tag. His name did not ring a bell. But he’s talking about sitting next to me in World History.  After a second look at his name tag, I arranged my face into a smile.  “John! How’ve you been?”  I exclaimed, while inside I frantically shuffled my mental rolodex: who is this guy?who is this guy?who is this guy? 

I have learned the most in a bluff-free life from a lovely friend who is blessed with charming simplicity.  Whenever I use a word she doesn’t know, she simply says “I don’t know that word.  What does that mean?”  No apology, no pretending, just a question.  It is so refreshing. 

I have learned from her ignorance so much more than she learned from my intelligence.    

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7 thoughts on “A Display of Ignorance

  1. I love the way you couched this tidbit.  I mean, who doesnt like Garrison Keillor?  and his show?  Even I can ignore his liberal political views and laugh at Guy Noir, etc.At any rate, I agree that one should not be afraid to admit *ignorance*  In most chit-chatting situations (aka cocktail parties or even a ladies Bible study), the speaker would relish the opportunity to *tell more* :)Yup, *I dont know* is in my vocabulary!

  2. I have tried to pound and pound this concept into my children’s minds but I still sometimes find myself bluffing, but like you less than I used to.

  3. You know, the sad thing is, I can tell you the names of the teachers (Mr. Stull, 9th grade geography; Mr. Hollander, community college English prof.) who made fun of me when I I didn’t know the answers to questions I had. On the other hand, I now have no hesitation in asking (mostly vocab.) questions in most of my upper level classes. Weird, huh? Shame on the teachers who continue to ridicule and treat as “less-than,” their students who just want to know more!

  4. But in that one instance, Carol, could you really tell “John” that you had no clue who he was? I totally agree with you on the rest, even though I would have difficulty admitting ignorance in some matters. But I do believe I would have done exactly what you did in the case of the person who remembered you, but  you didn’t remember him.

  5. @mamapiano – good point.  I remember our former pastor telling a story of a similar situation.  Someone came up to him (he was out of town) and gushed away like they were lost friends.  He said, “Would you please help me?  I’m seeing you out of context and I need you to refresh my memory.”  Sooooo.   I thought this was a great way to be honest and diplomatic at the same time.  Around this time, a woman came up to me in the grocery store and started conversing.  I used the “out of context” line on her…and she coldly stated, “You do our taxes.”  Yikes!  There was a time when I worked tax season and saw 12-18 clients a day.  But to *her* I was the only one she saw that day.  (shrug)

  6. Carol, my very important comment to add to this post is…I really like your new photo.:)And, I think I lead the list of those who too quickly pretend to know more than they do. Thanks for the great reminder that with admission of lack of knowledge also pours into one’s humbler self which can only be a good thing.I love reading your stuff!Steph

  7. And then there’s pretend to know and then look it up on Wikipedia when you get home approach. But yeah, asking is a good way to no more. I often enough find myself laughing along with people when I don’t know what they’re talking about, though (probably a product of a TV and YouTube shortage).

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