I was recently talking to a co-worker, and an esoteric subject became relevant. So before spouting out technical jargon, I thought it was important to determine if my co-worker knew anything about the subject.

Me: "Do you know what X is?"

Guy: ".......Yes"

(I wasn't expecting him to say yes, and the delay makes me suspicious)

Me: "Well, how about you tell me what you think it is just so we're on the same page"

Guy: "Actually, let's bring it back to blah blah blah" (diverting away from the question that he obviously had no answer to)

I've found myself in this situation a few times. I ask if they know what some esoteric term means, and they (different people on separate occasions) say yes. At first I believed them, but I'm beginning to suspect that my co-workers lie and pretend they know what I'm talking about, instead of just admitting that they don't know. Edit: Actually, I recall at least one instance at work where I've asked for an explanation and the person came clean that actually he didn't know.

My questions are

  • Why do co-workers lie about knowing things? I'll always ask if they say a term I haven't heard before. I don't understand this mindset at all.
  • How should you confront someone for lying about this?
  • How do you introduce an esoteric concept to a problem at work, without assuming that the person you're speaking to doesn't know it, while avoiding this mess?
  • 3
    "why do people lie about knowing things?" Childhood pavlovian training. "how should you call someone out for lying about this?" Don't. However, your third question makes sense. I hope someone can answer it. Nov 22, 2019 at 12:46
  • All occurrences of this behaviour were at work. I was tossing up between "Interpersonal Skills" stackexchange and this one. If you think I've put this in the wrong stack, I'm happy to hear suggestions.
    – RedFred
    Nov 22, 2019 at 13:11
  • 3
    Can't really see this as a workplace problem, perhaps if it was a technical discussion, but unprofessional to lie if it was. Nothing wrong with saying 'Maybe, refresh my memory' or just flat 'Nope, no idea'. Way too broad as it is to answer.
    – Kilisi
    Nov 22, 2019 at 13:25
  • 3
    "How to handle people lying in the workplace" is not a workplace problem? I disagree. But again, if you think there's a more appropriate stack, let me know.
    – RedFred
    Nov 22, 2019 at 13:30
  • 1
    What's your motivation? What's your desired outcome? TBH, you come off as being a bit arrogant and your question smacks of "How can I determine if I'm smarter than my colleagues". I mean, what is your point, exactly? What are you trying to achieve?
    – joeqwerty
    Nov 22, 2019 at 16:35

7 Answers 7


Why do people lie about knowing things?
Many reasons. Usually because they like to impress people. Or their job is to be "the person who knows things" so not knowing would imply they are not doing their job. Some people just hate admitting that they don't know something

How should you call someone out for lying about this?
Generally I wouldn't. What do you have to gain? Proving your own superiority? Bruising egos? There is little reason to do anything but drop the subject and go find someone else who might know more.

How do you introduce an esoteric concept without assuming that the person you're speaking to doesn't know it, while avoid this whole tragic mess?
There are two approaches I've found work. You can pretend you only just found out about subject X, launch into a enthusiastic short presentation about it and gauge reactions from there or you can skip the entire introduction and just ask an open question. If they look like a stranded goldfish at your exposition or dodge the question, refer to answer #1.

  • 2
    Some people lie simply because they are compulsive liars.
    – virolino
    Nov 22, 2019 at 13:24

You asked several questions, but I fear that the nature of your questions are digressing slightly from the true nature of the most important question:

how do you introduce an esoteric concept without assuming that the person you're speaking to doesn't know it, while avoid this whole tragic mess?

If we take this purely in a workplace context, there's good news. Workplaces have a goal - to get work done. Conversations (should) have a link to tasks which help the organization accomplish it's goals.

This might not seem directly important to your question, but it provides you with a guardrail to steer the conversation in a way that deflates the issue in your scenario.

If you and a coworker are talking about X, there's an assumption that X is important to getting some specific tasks done. Hence, you can bring X up in the context of completing those tasks. Instead of saying, do you know about X? you can say,

Hey, with respect to the Smith account - I was thinking that X could help us solve the regression problem. Do you think that makes sense? Can you help apply X to the regression problem for the Smith account?


Hey, I'm working on that bug in the login screen for the new StackExchange implementation. I have applied X to login screens in the past, what do you think about using X for login screens?


We keep having requests slip through the cracks, I think we need a more robust work order system. I was researching that new tool X from vendor Y. Can you help me determine if X is a good fit for work tracking?

In all of these examples, rather than just casually asking, do you know anything about X? you can instead tie X to a specific goal, task, or problem. This gives relevant context that helps guide the other person's response. It helps the other person direct their response, and it helps you evaluate if their knowledge is relevant to both X and the specific project at hand. Contrast that with your conversation, where you asked about X without any context, and then put the other party on the spot by prompting them to explain what they know about X. Frankly, even if they're an expert at X, that is so completely open-ended that I'm not surprised you got a redirect, or a blank stare while they hesitated.

So - assuming this is a workplace problem, where X has some relevance to something you're working on - instead of asking if they know about X, ask them a specific question about X, in the context of the actual problem you're trying to solve.

  • 1
    +1. If it is not directly about a task at hand so it's only small talk. Lying in small talk is a zero issue thing, for the HR (it's yet an IPS issue)
    – jean
    Nov 22, 2019 at 14:21

Me: "Do you know what X is?"

Me: "Well, how about you tell me what you think it is just so we're on the same page"

These are very insulting ways to seek the information you need, and as a result almost guaranteed to achieve the opposite of your goal with some fraction of people you try them on - as in fact, you have been finding.

Change your initial approach, start instead with something like:

"Are you familiar with X" (if you think it is uncertain they are)


"How familiar are you with X" (if you think they may have some awareness)

Then, try to find the appropriate language and amount of background to use to discuss the issue, without challenging them to recite their knowledge to you. For example, you could take a step further and ask the above question again about whatever specific sub-domain or feature of X you want to discuss. Or you start in, and revert to clarifying questions if it seems that you've lost the listener.

And it may not only be the words - tone of voice and mannerism matter too. Try to be collegial, not challenging.

  • I'm confident that this change won't work on these people. I don't find my first question insulting at all, it's just that it causes them to lie for some reason. There's no shame in being ignorant about something: Nobody knows everything.
    – RedFred
    Nov 23, 2019 at 1:21
  • 1
    It doesn't matter if you think your approach is insulting what matters is likelihood that the people you have trouble interacting with do - a likelihood the refusal to even consider which you are demonstrating right now only increases in probability. Nov 23, 2019 at 1:27
  • Sure, how I think someone should respond is irrelevant. But "These are very insulting ways to seek the info" and "People can be offended by the way you're seeking this info" are very different things.
    – RedFred
    Nov 23, 2019 at 1:32

People probably aren't lying. It's really difficult to answer when being quizzed like that. Often, people have heard of a concept, but have difficulty defining it, or knowing how it applies to the situation at hand. "Do you know X?" can mean everything from understanding the words to using it every day. Also, "do you know X?" is usually seen as rhetorical, and people expect an explanation to follow. The "yes" is just to move the conversation forward.

The polite and most useful way for you to handle the situation is for you to do the recap to make sure everyone is on the same page.

You know X?

... yes.

It's basically blah, right? So I think we can use it for our situation because of blah. What do you think?

In other words, you shouldn't interpret their "yes" to mean anything other than "I am willing for you to proceed with your explanation." It's your idea you're trying to sell. It's your responsibility to hold up that part of the conversation.


If you are at work you don't ask if someone know what X is. You say "we'll be doing X". If someone don't know what it is (and that knowledge is critical) they will ask for explanation.
If it's not crucial for their work (I don't need to know what number of Fotran people are using. I don't need to know how to code in it. I just need to know it's tool to achieve wanted result) they will just nod their head and follow instructions.
You can start from explaining what X is. If they know they will stop you and tell you they know it. Then you can say "Sorry, this is so esoteric topic that I wanted to make sure we are on the same page".

Now, from your example it's hard for me to thing about workplace situation you have such question in outcome. You're either looking for people knowing about X to help you on the project or you don't know and you want explanation. In first case, ESPECIALLY at workplace, you should ask "DO you know what X is because I need help in my project". Because People might know what X but don't have time to help you. But they might know somebody who can.
In the second case you should ask "I need explanation about what X is". Because explanation can be short OR people might not know what X is but know someone who knows.

In general is somebody ask me "Do you know what X is" I answer "Do I need to know?". Because I might know, but I cannot waste time to play in explaining what I know if it's not important. Or I don't know but I already have too much on my plate to add extra knowledge.

You cannot

introduce an esoteric concept without assuming that the person you're speaking to doesn't know it

You either assume they don't know and THAT'S the reason for introduction OR they know so there is no need for introduction. At workplace there is some type of labeling where you can easily assume that people know what X is. And vice versa, there are some deparments who will have no idea about it and any explanation need to be done in layman terms.

If it's not needed don't waste people time trying to catch them lying and doing mid-term tests to check their knowledge.

  • why do people lie about knowing things?

I'm not convinced we're the right SE to answer this. People lie about stuff all the time, and the reasons why are wide and varied. This is far too general of a question, and I think the more important one to ask is, why would this particular person potentially lie about this? You haven't given any detail as to what this "esoteric" concept is, so we have no way of knowing what that means. It is possible that the person in question has heard of the concept, but may not know enough to engage you in the way you want. That's not a failing on the person by any means, and certainly not a lie. Instead, perhaps your expectations need a reset.

It leads into the next question:

  • how do you introduce an esoteric concept without assuming that the person you're speaking to doesn't know it?

Since I am assuming this is a workplace incident, approach it like a learning opportunity. You may have already soured the milk by asking the person if they know about it; approaching it now by acting like they lied to you is only going to cause tension. You've already done that with the phrase "Well, how about you tell me what you think it is just so we're on the same page". It's standoffish, and could have been said in a much nicer way.

That being said, it is fair to ask how familiar someone is with a concept, but there's a better way to do it. Gauge their knowledge without being judgmental, and tackle it as a teaching/learning opportunity. There have been multiple times where someone asks me if I am familiar with an old concept, and while I may have heard of the term/name, I may not be knowledgeable about the thing itself. Humans are fallible, and we're not prone to knowing absolutely everything, and to expect someone to is a bit unfair.

  • I'm not expecting them to know everything, and I certainly know I could have handled it better. "while I may have heard of the term/name, I may not be knowledgeable about the thing itself" I find this part interesting though. Maybe the follow-up could have been "Have you just heard about it before, or are you really into X, Y, and Z?"
    – RedFred
    Nov 23, 2019 at 1:55

“...Yes” doesn’t automatically mean lying or claiming knowledge of something that one has no knowledge about.

Your co-worker could’ve answered “...Yes” for a few reasons

  • He actually knew it but not interested in discussing in detail
  • He read a few articles about it and didn’t find it interesting/relevant
  • It’s the easiest way to get you to stop talking about the subject because he’s more interested in the other subject
  • He actually doesn’t know it and doesn’t want to get to know it
  • He knows that if he answers no, a long winded detailed explanation will be coming and he plans to do something else with his time

On esoteric terms, people will ask you what they mean if they get a sense that it’s relevant to them.

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