The women of my family have a problem with those three little words. I know we’re not alone, lots of people don’t like to say it. Maybe we don’t want to open ourselves up to criticism, maybe we don’t want to look foolish. Whatever the reason, the women in my family, myself included, can not bring ourselves to say “I don’t know.”
It’s a little alarming, the lengths to which we will go to avoid saying “I don’t know.” Deflection and diversion will work in a pinch, but our preferred method is just making shit up. And it all sounds completely plausible. We’re fairly smart, well-educated women, so when we make a series of educated guesses about something it sounds like we know what we’re talking about. This is important, because the only thing we hate more that admitting ignorance is being wrong, so we come up with explanations that we can defend if it comes out that the truth is slightly different from our version.
The scary thing, for me at least, is that I usually don’t even realize I’m doing it. I only figured it out a few years ago during a conversation where I spent five minutes talking about zoning laws. The full extent of my knowledge about zoning laws is that there is a difference between “commercial” and “residential.” And yet, when a friend wondered aloud “What does that sign mean” I explained it at length. And I was believed. When I realized what I had done, I knew I had to do something.
I’m learning to cope with my inability. I still can’t resist explaining things that I have only a passing acquaintance with, but I try to preface my statements with “I wonder if…” or “Maybe it’s…” When I slip up, I will confess that I just made that shit up. I’ve learned to recognize the signs when my mother is making shit up. There’s a certain tone of voice, a tilt of the head that gives it away when you know what to looks for. I don’t spend enough time with my aunts to know all their tells, but I think I can spot the BS about half the time. What makes it so hard is the reflexive quality to it. It’s not like we hear “I wonder what that means,” and scramble to find an answer. No, the words just fall out of our mouths like magic.
It helps that I live with a small child. When you are faced with the nineteenth “Why” in a row, or questions like “Who’s birthday is any day,” sometimes your only option is “I don’t know.” And she still thinks I’m the smartest person on the planet. The more I get used to saying the words in a judgement-free environment, the easier it is to say them in real-life situations. I can still only do it when I’m asked “Where should we go for dinner,” but it’s a start.