yes, you do actually know!
April 18, 2010 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Why do people claim not to know, when they can actually produce pretty good answers (or at least estimates), and how do I get them to do that on the first try?

I get really annoyed when I ask for information someone clearly knows or can figure out on the spot, and he tells me he doesn't have a clue. To give a recent example,

Me: "How long is this concert supposed to last?"
Friend: "I don't know."

Friend here was in the band, and after going back and forth two or three times, he gave an estimate that turned out to be off by only fifteen minutes.

This happens all the time.

So, my question is, why did he say he didn't know, when it was clearly just not true, and how do I skip the intervening conversation?
posted by d. z. wang to Human Relations (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because he didn't want to hear about how how wrong he was in the event that the estimate was off by a larger factor. I also hate being put on the spot for stuff like there -there are so many other factors that could affect what you are asking.
posted by kellyblah at 12:54 PM on April 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


People say they don't know when they don't feel like answering the question, because they're tired or distracted by something else or in a hurry or are just being ornery.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:01 PM on April 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


I do this occasionally, and it's usually because either a) I'm being lazy, b) I'm in a bad mood and feeling annoyed with the questioner (he's asking hundreds of questions or something), or c) I think the person is just asking to make chit chat and doesn't really need to know the answer.

My boyfriend also 'I don't knows' me sometimes. With him I think it's option c), so usually I try to let him know why it's important for me to know the answer from the start - "I'm meeting up with Sally later and she needs to know what time I'll be free after the concert. How long do you think it will last?" That doesn't cut down on conversation time but might reduce your frustration.
posted by prettaygood at 1:06 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I find that people do this when the question asker constantly asks too many questions.
posted by meerkatty at 1:08 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


for me it's not about being worried that i could be wrong, it's about changing gears mentally. maybe your query could contain more prompting details. sounds like a pain in the ass, but i do that all the time and it works. if you want precise answers, ask more precise questions. that way, the person you are asking has something to work with. maybe he was thinking about something else at the time or had never had the need to frame his experience in that way. something like that.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 1:09 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe it would help to rephrase your question such that the required answer need not be the one and only true answer but can be an estimate. People might be more willing to give an answer if it is taken as their opinion or estimate, not as the final answer that would be held against them if it turns out not to be entirely accurate. In the example you gave, phrasing it like "How long do you think the concert will last?" would be more open.
posted by meijusa at 1:10 PM on April 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I give that answer when someone interrupts my train of thought with a question that is not germaine to that train of thought. I can't shift gears that easily mentally. I will also often tell people something like that so that i actually have time to consider a question and give them a good answer. If someone has me on the spot, I'm not in a state to give them a good answer. Leave me alone for a while and I'll come up with the answer. This is especially the case with tech support questions. Just because you think it's easy to come up with an answer doesn't mean that it's so.

And I'll tell you right now, I'm not going to change that, and anyone who tries to make me is probably going to be snapped at. If you don't like it, too bad. You do not get to dictate my mental processes.
posted by ursus_comiter at 1:14 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


People say "I don't know" when they don't want to deal with the question. I'm not sure why you think this is a hard thing to understand.
posted by dfriedman at 1:14 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


For me it's one of a few things

- I have a rough estimate and I think someone wants something more specific and/or I can't communicate with them that it's a rough estimate [i.e. they're going to take it as specific no matter what I say about how rough it is]
- I think they're trying to use my knowledge to substitute for figuring it out for themselves
- to me "I don't know" is a true and accurate answer to the question
- I think they want to have a "fact" to use for some purpose and I don't think that my level of knowledge about the topic would classify my guesses as facts
- they want to blame me if my answer is wrong [I know this sounds weird, but it's definitely happened enough that it's not just one firend or one type of situation - I'll say "oh I think it's about an hour..." friend grouses all the way home about how she had to pee for the last 30 minutes "but you SAID it was going to be about an hour..." that sort of thing]

I think to get around this, you need to ask questions that are more specific about what you want, or less specific possibly. So, instead of your question

- "Do you think we'll be able to catch the 10 pm bus after this?"
- "Any idea if this is going to be like an hour or more like three hours?"
- "Last time you were here how long did the production last?"

Also sometimes I think people ask questions like this when they're just trying to make idle conversation, but for me it's sort of like work (again, maybe hard to explain) so I'd rather just chitchat than be quizzed.
posted by jessamyn at 1:22 PM on April 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


Me: "How long is this concert supposed to last?"
Friend: "I don't know."


You seem to find it very irritating that anyone would interpret your question any differently than you meant it. You meant, "What's your best rough estimate of how long the concert is supposed to last?" But someone else could easily interpret it as, "Do you know exactly how long the concert is going to last, to the closest five-minute increment?" If you consider it obvious that you intended your meaning rather than his interpretation, then it makes sense that you'd be annoyed he didn't say "an hour and fifteen minutes." After all, it ended up going an hour, which is pretty much the same thing in your view. But given his interpretation, and possibly his need to seem knowledgeable or precise about things, he would not have felt good about telling you "an hour and fifteen minutes" on the spot. If he noticed that it went for exactly an hour, he might feel he gave you the wrong answer since it ended up going only 80% of what he said.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:32 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why are you asking this question? Can't you make a guess at the answer that would probably turn out to be reasonably close to the truth?
posted by baf at 1:33 PM on April 18, 2010 [11 favorites]


I agree with meerkatty as to a main reason people do this, and suggest you try asking no more than 1 question per week of those about you; you may find that the quality of answers you get thereafter improves sharply.
posted by paulsc at 1:37 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had to get a shot with a HUGE needle recently and I asked the nurse how much it was going to hurt. She said to me "nobody will be able to tell you how much it's going to hurt *you*."

I also get irked when I encounter that response. I have found that -- you know how there are some people who can't deal with shades of gray - there's either RIGHT or WRONG? I think the opposite kind of person exists, too, where they can't deal with black or white. If they feel like they're being asked to define in black and white something that is gray or subjective, they completely resist it.

What I do there, which seems to work pretty well, is frame the question so it is more black and white to start with.

In my case, I asked, trying again "do people usually tell you [which is something objective, as opposed to what I personally feel] that it is more painful than the regular needles? [specific other thing to compare to]."

She said "nah, I don't think anyone's ever complained."

Framing it like that made it a lot easier. If I know the person is like this, I start off framing the questions more in black and white like that.

In your case, if I were friends with your friend and I knew he was like this, I'd probably ask him if the band expected to play for around as long as they usually do.

Because if their usually play time ranges from half an hour to 45 minutes, if I ask him how long the show will be, he can't tell me, in black and white, how long it will be because it varies.

But if I ask him if it's going to be around their normal range, he *can* give me a yes or no to that even if it does very. And he can give me a yes or no to what they expect, too.
posted by Ashley801 at 1:39 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's one that I have found to work in many situations: instead of asking them to make projections, ask them for historical data and do the projection yourself. E.g.,

Instead of: "When do you expect tickets to sell out?"
Ask: "When did tickets sell out last time?"

This takes the burden off the other person, since (1) they don't have to do the mental heavy lifting of producing a numerical estimate, and (2) they don't have to worry about accountability if they're wrong.

You can fine-tune the question to account for individual circumstances, like "When did tickets sell out last time you were in a big city?". If the person seems friendly enough, you can even ask for additional data points to produce a more accurate estimate, e.g.: "Thanks! And when did you sell out the time before that?"

In an ideal world they would be producing the estimates, but realistically sometimes you have to do it yourself.
posted by lunchbox at 1:49 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


The 17th question my daughter has asked me in the three-minute car ride home from daycare often gets answered with "I don't know". Short for "I'm not really paying attention to what you said and I need to concentrate on driving now."

Perhaps your friend was mentally preparing for the concert he was about to be in.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:50 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know.

(sorry, couldn't resist)

But really, I think that people just do this because, for whatever reason, they aren't interested in intellectually investing in the answer. It usually isn't intended to be rude, a lot of the time it's just out of distraction, too many previous questions, or what have you. Usually, politely conveying genuine interest and having a reason for wanting to know whatever information it is that you want to know helps motivate people to pay more attention to your question, i.e.: "Can you give me a general idea of how long I can expect XYZ to last, I need to go do ABC afterward?"

A thought, which may not apply to you at all: trying to "skip the intervening conversation" seems to imply that you only want to talk to the person for the purpose of acquiring information. Interest in conversation is mutual, so if you find yourself being a conversational utilitarian, people may just sense that you aren't all that interested in them and respond by not being interested in you. Please feel free to ignore this idea if you know that it doesn't apply to you.
posted by _cave at 2:15 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Blindsight. You don't think you know, but you do.
posted by handee at 2:19 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I say that to people that I don't think get the difference between an authoritative answer and a wild-ass guess. I'll answer all kinds of questions with educated guesses (sometimes very educated, like your friend in the band, sometimes less educated) for my friends who know it comes with an unstated "don't quote me on that, though."

Other people I'll either say "I don't know" or I'll try to respond with a non-answer true fact. example: How long is the concert supposed to last? Me: The last concert I was at lasted until about 11.
posted by ctmf at 2:31 PM on April 18, 2010


I find I can consistently get fairly direct answers (even when it's a direct, genuine "I don't know") if, like some other folks have said here, I make it clear to someone why I'm asking and what sort of answer I need. If your concern here is primarily methodology, that's probably what you need to start focusing on: make your need in asking unambiguous to the person you're directing the question to, so that they're not stuck with the burden of trying to interpret the scope and purpose and motivation for the question.

So, to run with your example:

- if you need to know how long the show will likely go because you absolutely have to catch a bus or meet a friend or such by a deadline, let them know that you want to get an idea of whether you should be planning to bail before the show is over and that the timing is important.

- if you're curious about the general timeframe but it's okay if the answer is a guess that's off by a half hour, let them know that so that they can feel comfortable giving you an estimate without worrying that you're going to be inconvenienced and hence possibly upset by them if their guess is wrong.

- if you're just idly curious because you aren't familiar with how shows like the one you're at will work, maybe let them know that you're asking out of a general ignorance to the format, and they'll know that it might be useful to you to know not only their estimate but how and why the came to that estimate, in case you want to be able to figure this out for yourself next time you need an estimate.

Some of this stuff can be sidestepped in situations where you know the person you're asking well and they know you well or the context is really unambiguously clear, but it's really easy to overestimate the clarity of your personal context in someone else's mind and so being explicit and helpful up front in the way that you ask a question can be really important. Doubly so if having to volley back and forth a couple times to get an answer is something you find personally frustrating.
posted by cortex at 2:33 PM on April 18, 2010


Would you rather get this answer? Like everyone else has said, being a little more specific in your question lets us avoid that.
posted by anaelith at 3:21 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


If I know something to which I reply "I don't know," it's usually because I sense that the person is going to tell me what they think anyway. A lot of times, I use it as a prompt for more information, especially if it's with someone known to be argumentative.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:22 PM on April 18, 2010


Try this change in the future:
"How long do you think this concert will to last?"
posted by cmccormick at 3:31 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


From the phrasing of the question "How long is this concert supposed to last?" I'm going to assume that you were asking either closely before the show started, or in fact after it already had. If I were the musician in question and my band were about to go on, I'd be be concentrating putting on a good show. As a performer, my main concern would be making sure that the audience is about to get an amazing performance. I might be centering myself, visualizing the event, going over last-minute changes in my head, stuff like that.

If someone came up to me while I was in that mind state and asked me how long the show was going to be, I'd actually be *offended.* Like, I'm putting it out there for you and the rest of the concertgoers, and you're thinking about *time*? Time is not what people at a concert are concerned with, at least not in the mind of the performer.

It's not that he didn't know how long the concert would last, but that he probably thinks of a concert as an "organic" event--one that hinges on the music and the performance, not time.
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 4:50 PM on April 18, 2010


Yeah, sometimes "I don't know" really means "shut up."

If you have a history of replying to "I don't know" with "well, how long do you think? Don't you have a guess? You mean you really don't have any idea, seriously?" then people are going to be less inclined to answer in the future.

Also, in your example, just because the guy's guess was close to the actual time doesn't mean he actually knew and was hiding it from you. If you went up to fifty of the audience members there, asked them each the same question, and refused to take "I don't know" for an answer, you'd probably get a lot of wild guesses that turned out fairly accurate. Maybe there's a way you can improve your own sense of estimation so you don't need to rely on others' guesses.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:08 PM on April 18, 2010


Sometimes I'm just annoyed by the person asking questions. If this happens to you all the time maybe you have an off-putting way of asking questions... all the time, or aggressively, or when it's not really important, or when people just aren't feeling chatty, etc.

Not knowing you, it's hard to say - if you want people to give you better answers, try to figure out what is irritating people (by keeping an eye on their body language) and cut it out. (Like, are you asking when they're trying to listen to something? Are you asking them when you could figure it out yourself easily?)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:29 PM on April 18, 2010


Just to clear up the circumstances of that example, it was the morning of the concert as we were talking about how far away the venue was. Later, he told me how he appreciated that I did come despite the inconvenience. I certainly believe that people will claim not to know just to avoid the question, but I don't think that was the case here.

Regarding the wild guesses: that's actually okay. Part of my question is, how do I indicate that I'd be happy to take their best guess, knowing that it's a guess? And to that end, thanks to everyone for the suggestions about explaining my curiosity and phrasing it in terms of definite knowledge (e.g., the "do other people say it hurts more?").

paulsc: "suggest you try asking no more than 1 question per week of those about you"

I'm actually flirting with the idea of trying this, mostly because it seems impossible without significant social friction and misunderstanding. Have you ever done this or seen this done, and how did it work out then? What counts toward this limit? I'm going to exclude professional contexts right away, because I work a customer-facing position. Do I get to exclude formulaic questions like "How are you?" Is it one question per week per person or across everyone I know? Do I have to include questions that aren't grammatically phrased as such, like "I'm afraid I don't understand..." ? And their dual, questions that aren't really, like "May I offer you some water?" ?
posted by d. z. wang at 7:25 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Part of my question is, how do I indicate that I'd be happy to take their best guess, knowing that it's a guess?

Why not just "What's your best guess about [how long the concert will last]?" (Or like others have said, incorporate "do you think" in there, i.e. "How long do you think the concert will last?" Or "How long would you guess the concert will last?")
posted by EmilyClimbs at 8:40 PM on April 18, 2010


...because "knowing" =/ "being able to produce pretty good answers (or at least estimates)". Your question was simply imprecise. If you ask imprecise questions, don't get irritated if you have to 'waste' time with follow up questions.

If you don't need an exact answer, ask for a guess, in the way EmilyClimbs and others have suggested.

And if you do ask someone if they know and they say "I don't", have the good grace to chalk it up to a misunderstanding and say, "well, can you hazard a rough guess? It would really help me" without getting irritated. It will make the exchange more pleasant for both of you. People don't like being interrogated (and going back two or three times after the person has already said "I don't know" may well be perceived as unpleasant and an imposition by the other person!). If you rephrase your question you might make it more pleasant.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:14 AM on April 19, 2010


Man, I get this all the time for my job and it is frustrating.

As a project manager, I often have to get cost estimates for materials & work for things that are still very schematic. Contractors and vendors *hate* quoting prices because everything in construction is fungible - especially so early in the project when we don't know what we are designing yet. The only way I get them to produce a figure is to say that I just need a figure to the nearest x-amount of dollars, and I make that x a pretty wide figure (if it's a 500K budget, I say to give me to the nearest $50,000 or $100,000). That usually gets them to give me a price that's actually fairly accurate.
posted by yeti at 7:16 AM on April 19, 2010


So... to continue on that though: when asking how far the venue is give them multiple choices that are ridiculous. "How far is it? A mile? five? twenty?" And they'll likely narrow it down for you" "No no no... like 3 or 4."
posted by yeti at 7:20 AM on April 19, 2010


i have a different take on your question. i can easily be a 'know it all' type myself, but sometimes i answer just like your friend did (giving an 'i don't know' when he actually likely knew the answer). why do i sometimes give the 'i don't know' answer? it's so i don't get teased and harassed for "why do you always know these things?" or "why are you so smart?" Sometimes, i just don't want to have to explain to people why or how i know what i know. oftentimes, it's an educated guess that can't be revealed by a simple explanation.

i can't describe what it's like to be on the receiving end of an angry tirade about why it appears i sometimes effortlessly intuit an answer. but fear of that type of reaction will give me pause to shut my mouth or remove myself from having to answer a question.
posted by kuppajava at 9:12 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


1) He doesn't owe you and answer. He has no obligation to you. Maybe if you go through life thinking that people are required to answer when you question them, they get tired of it and will blow you off.

2) You said yourself that he gave you an estimate. This means that he does not know, that's he's making an educated guess. Why don't you just guess yourself?

3) Maybe some people don't like to say one thing that they don't know to be 100% accurate because they may turn out to be wrong. I can't stand people who don't know something so when you ask them a question, they guess and turn out to be wrong half the time rather than just admitting that they don't know.

Everything cortex said is right on.
posted by Brian Puccio at 11:51 AM on April 19, 2010


Have you ever done this or seen this done, and how did it work out then? What counts toward this limit? I'm going to exclude professional contexts right away, because I work a customer-facing position. Do I get to exclude formulaic questions like "How are you?" Is it one question per week per person or across everyone I know? Do I have to include questions that aren't grammatically phrased as such, like "I'm afraid I don't understand..." ? And their dual, questions that aren't really, like "May I offer you some water?" ?

I'm not sure if this is a joke or not. Someone gave you a suggestion, sort of a tongue in cheek one I think, and you replied with not one follow-up question but six. And this to a suggestion that was just an idle suggestion "um maybe try this?". I'm sure paulsc didn't intend to shepherd you on this journey, he just wanted to give you an answer. Instead you treated it like opening up a dialogue. This may just be your style and that's fine, there's really nothing wrong with that approach, but it may jar with your friend's style in some way. So for example, on my planet, I'd feel put on the spot if I made you a suggestion and then you peppered me with questions. I'd want to be polite, and yet I'd feel that I didn't sign up for creating this project for you.

That is to say, it may be that by answering one question your friend feels he's going to get six more [i.e. opening up a discussion about the topic which involves you asking a lot of questions] and doesn't want to go there. Some people are more social problem solvers and some people are more individual about this sort of thing. If you and your friend are different sorts of people he may be wanting to not turn the discussion into a big group problem solving exercise.
posted by jessamyn at 12:12 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I'm meeting up with Sally later and she needs to know what time I'll be free after the concert. How long do you think it will last?"

This. I learned about this technique at a work training seminar (I'm in sales). You can seem like a dick by putting someone on the spot like that, especially if you aren't in a situation where someone could reasonably expect to be asked questions. If you want to just get to the gist, tell them that you want to ask them a question and why, then ask if it's ok to ask the question. This gives them the opportunity to say no. If they say yes, ask the question.

For your example, you could try:

You: I really want to check out your show; I just need to make sure I know what time I'm looking at getting home so I can make plans for tomorrow. Can I double check that info with you?
Him: Sure.

(or he could say no. If that's the case, say "cool" and deal with not knowing)

You: How long is the concert supposed to last?
Him: (answer)

He'll be expecting you to ask a question, and he has a good guess of what it is before you ask, so he can formulate an answer.
posted by katybird at 1:35 PM on April 19, 2010


Oh, as a follow up, if you don't know why you're asking a question - that's very good reason to reconsider asking.
posted by katybird at 2:09 PM on April 19, 2010


I'm actually flirting with the idea of trying this, mostly because it seems impossible without significant social friction and misunderstanding. Have you ever done this or seen this done, and how did it work out then? What counts toward this limit? I'm going to exclude professional contexts right away, because I work a customer-facing position. Do I get to exclude formulaic questions like "How are you?" Is it one question per week per person or across everyone I know? Do I have to include questions that aren't grammatically phrased as such, like "I'm afraid I don't understand..." ? And their dual, questions that aren't really, like "May I offer you some water?" ?

Whoa. That's not your actual technique, right?
posted by small_ruminant at 3:11 PM on April 19, 2010


jessamyn: "I'm not sure if this is a joke or not."

Neither was I, because I never figured out whether paulsc was serious or not. His proposal is obviously difficult to accept literally; on the other hand, the rest of his answer and the one by meerkatty which he cited, seemed on the level. So, I figured, either I learn something or he gets to laugh at a stranger on the internet. I'm okay with either outcome.

Omnomnom: "Your question was simply imprecise. If you ask imprecise questions, don't get irritated if you have to 'waste' time with follow up questions."

That's a good point. I hadn't considered that my friend in the band could have thought I wanted a precise answer, or would hold him accountable for providing an inaccurate one. I guess the problem is that I would consider someone to know the answer if he can construct a good guess on the spot; others seem to require a much higher standard. [1]

So if I were to ask, as others upthread have suggested, something like, "Do you have any idea how long a concert we're talking about? I mean, order of magnitude here, are the buses still going to be running when we get out?" If you heard that, would you understand how crude an answer I was willing to accept?

[1] Incidentally, while typing this reply, I think I realized what about these conversations actually bothered me. I think I'm guessing all the time. I don't see any categorical difference between how certain I am of my name and how certain I am that Daylight Savings Time moves Chicago into UTC -5. Apparently other people actually do distinguish between information that they "know" and information they're constructing on the spot, and when they tell me they don't know, it's a good-faith statement that they're not sure, and if I were to ask for an estimate, then that would be a different question. Obviously, there's still plenty of room for people just blowing me off or being deliberately thick, but on the whole, that's a much more comforting model than what I had previously, which was just that people lied to me all the time. Thank you, AskMeFi.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:22 PM on April 19, 2010


So if I were to ask, as others upthread have suggested, something like, "Do you have any idea how long a concert we're talking about? I mean, order of magnitude here, are the buses still going to be running when we get out?" If you heard that, would you understand how crude an answer I was willing to accept?

Short answer: Yes, I would. Explaining to the person why you need the answer, like you did, would help them answer what you really want to know.


Long answer:
d.z., you seem to take things a lot more literally than most people. I'm not trying to snark here, but the questions you ask other people and the way you are responding here suggest that you find it hard to intuit the unspoken assumptions people are putting into their answers. Also, you seem to have a very functional view of conversations, as in question -> answer, and everything in between is merely filler material.

A lot of people don't function that way. They find it easier to inch their way to the answer you really want ("will it end in time for me to take the bus" rather than "what exact time does the gig end") with the aid of the inbetween conversation.
Value the conversation between question and answer. It is important. There is a lot more going on in it than you think. It is that part that decides if people are going to put in the effort to calculate your answer, or whether they will think "he's abrupt and probably only asked out of curiosity. I don't have the time for this" while they tell you "I don't know."
posted by Omnomnom at 2:19 AM on April 20, 2010


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