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Once somebody told me "never say 'I don't know', never". However, sometimes I really find myself wanting to say "I do not know the answer to your question", or "I can't do this". Some other times, I would like to openly say "I am not happy with my recent results, I can do better than this".

My question is: in the real world, should one ever openly discuss his limitations or fallacies? Or should one focus to sell the strong sides and hide all weaknesses?

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    Saying "I don't know." followed by work to find a solution is much different than just saying "I don't know." and then giving up. – Brandin Jun 27 '15 at 12:26
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    Where do you live? If you live in Western culture this is considerably different than if you live in Asia. – enderland Jun 27 '15 at 12:57
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    I used to never let anyone know that I didnt know how to do a task and always said I understood when I did not. It really just made my life so much harder. Instead of saying I knew and then frantically researching and doing my task now I say "No I have never done that" they will then most likely just show you how. Or if not at least they know that you learning it is now part of the timeline. At least that is how it was for me in software development. – marsh Jun 27 '15 at 15:01
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    There are times and places where one should or should not acknowledge limitations and weakness. It all depends on the exact context. While I'm sure there are differences across cultures, the specific situation plays a role at least as large as culture in determining the correct behavior. Can you give a specific context for the question? – teego1967 Jun 27 '15 at 16:00
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    I was told by someone returning from a holiday in a distant country that they found it very tricky to ask people for directions to some place. Because of "never say I don't know". Apparently not giving you directions would be so impolite that people rather gave you completely made up directions than saying "I don't know". – gnasher729 Jun 29 '15 at 0:09
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There's nothing wrong with admitting you don't know something. I'm a Sysadmin but there was a time where I didn't know what a SAN was. Not knowing is ok. Not willing to change that? That's where your issue can come about. Instead of saying "I don't know", say something like "I don't know how to do that but I'm happy to figure it out."

As for saying you can't do something, I think it depends on how you say it. If you're saying you can't do it because you don't know how, see above. If you're saying you can't do something because you don't have time, exactly explain to your requester that you're busy and offer a time where you can fit their request in, if possible.

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    I know someone who says "I don't know it yet", followed most of the times with "let me google it". I try not to forget it. – Trickylastname Jun 27 '15 at 1:33
  • Also, whether you can't accomplish something due to technical, financial, or other limitations of your environment, equipment, company, etc. – NonSecwitter Jun 29 '15 at 13:53
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    @Trickylastname: This is how I've operated for years. I never say I can't or won't do something. I say I haven't yet had an opportunity to. When you say "I can't", people tend to hear "I won't". – Joel Etherton Jun 29 '15 at 18:07
  • In military training, the only acceptable responses are "Yes, sir," "No, sir," and "I do not know, sir, but I will find out." – MissMonicaE Oct 28 '16 at 16:02
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Once somebody told me "never say 'I don't know', never".

I never say never. (Oh wait, I think I just did!) I think this is terrible advice.

I feel that honesty is almost always the best policy. And if being honest requires you to admit that you don't know, then that's what you should do.

I frequently like to declare "I learn something new every day." By definition, that means for many questions, I would admit that "I don't know."

My question is: in the real world, should one ever openly discuss his limitations or fallacies? Or should one focus to sell the strong sides and hide all weaknesses?

Context is everything.

In most settings, there is no harm in admitting you don't know something - provided this is something you aren't required to know.

If you are in charge of HR, you might be expected to know the list of the current year's company holidays, or the policy for vacations, or what forms are required for hiring a new employee. Simply saying "I don't know" and walking away might be bad for your career. Instead, saying something like "Let me put together an email with the details for you" might be better.

On the other hand, saying "I don't know" if asked about a movie you hadn't seen yet is perfectly reasonable. And any other reply might come across as odd.

In many situations, it can be effective to say something like "I don't know. But I do know how to find out - let me get back to you."

There's a line here between a candid admission of not knowing, and being deceitful, and the only way to know for sure is to understand the context of the question and reply.

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Ever heard the phrase "Nobody is perfect"? Refusing to say "I don't know" is disastrously bad advice. That said, there are better ways of saying it. As a recruiter I'm always vastly more impressed by the candidate who says "I've haven't had the opportunity to do that but here's how I'd get up to speed" than the cocky candidate who tries to BS their answer or gives a deliberately vague answer to avoid saying "I don't know". The engineering teams I've supported usually try to deliberately ask a candidate a question they know the candidate won't know the answer to because they want to hear how that person will tackle something new. In a rapidly changing tech world the ability to pick up new skills is quickly becoming paramount and you can't really learn something new without first admitting there is something you don't know. Finally, it's an honest answer and honestly always trumps obfuscation.

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Humility is a strength in the I.T. world. Yes there are “brogrammers” (i.e.: deluded bullies) out there who “never admit weakness” as a mantra, but it logically never adds up when you genuinely think about it. The world of technology changes so much day after day pretending you are “all knowing” is in itself delusional and self-destructive.

That said how to handle it in different cultures is the real issue. In American/Western culture, there is still a strong “never show them you are weak” mindset, but that is easy to deal with by simply being honest and saying something like, “I’m good at object oriented languages like PHP, but Ruby still is a weak point…” or something along those lines.

In fact pointing out a potential strength while relaying a weakness is a good way to strike a balance. Not just in the workplace but in life in general.

Now with all that said, in many dot-com environments everywhere the idea that technical people such as programmers are constantly—and I mean constantly—asking any questions whatsoever can be met with a “this guy is weak” reaction. To many overly aggressive people (i.e.: brogrammers), anything other than bold-faced “fake it to make it” confidence is seen as a weakness. Which again is ridiculous.

Programming is about learning, adapting and growing. Humility is a strength. And the ability to balance the personal skills you have with the “frontier” of skills you are capable of learning/handling—but just haven’t had a chance to touch yet—is something you really need to learn how to deal with.

FWIW, I’ve been doing this for nearly 20+ years and it’s still hard to negotiate these kinds of “I can do this but I can’t do that…” conversations. But that is part of the overall package of doing this kind of work.

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Note: this answer is written from an European perspective where people are usually valued by the end-result of their work and where actions speak louder than words. I have heard that some other cultures put a lot more value on not losing face.


In the long term, a wrong answer is worse than no answer at all.

When you don't know the answer and make stuff up, then in the best case the other side will notice and not pay any attention at all to what you said, but be more careful about believing what you say in the future. But in the worst case they believe you and make a wrong decision based on what you said. This is going to hurt you and them more than when you would have admitted that you are out of your comfort zone.

Possible answers you can give should admit that you do not know the answer, but still include a (hopefully honest) promise that you will do what you can to still get the other side the answer they need:

  • This is not my area of expertise, but [colleague] might be able to answer this question
  • I am not sure right now, but I could look it up and tell you when I found out
  • We don't know yet but we are currently in the process of finding out

Now for the other question "I am not happy with my recent results, I can do better than this": When your product fulfills the requirements, then you should not undersell it. Sure, you might have done better, but when there are no open complaints, then there is no reason to defend yourself. An exception is when the product has any hidden defects the other side doesn't realize. In that case it would be negligent to not point them out and ask for additional time to correct them.

  • "In the long term, no answer is worse than a wrong answer." I think that might not be what you wanted to write. – gnasher729 Jun 29 '15 at 0:12
  • @gnasher729 based on the rest of the response, I saw a slightly different interpretation of that line, nothing is worse than a wrong answer. A bit weird in the original wording but still correct. – RubberChickenLeader Jun 29 '15 at 12:53
  • @gnasher729 corrected. – Philipp Jun 29 '15 at 13:08
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It has been my observation that the people who never say "I don't know" when they genuinely don't know tend to skate by for awhile but in the end always have a spectacular failure. The career ending (at least at that place)kind.

There is however a way to say "I don't know" and way not to say it. First, you should know the basics of your profession no matter what your profession is. A network admin who doesn't know how to even start setting up a new user is admitting he is incompetent. One who has never set one up for that particular type of system can say, "I have never done that on XYZ system, but I am sure it will only take me a few minutes to figure it out."

Next there is a huge difference attitudinally between "I don't know" and using that as a excuse not to do something and "I don't know but I can figure it out."

Even "I don't know" with no intention to do more is acceptable if the question is genuinely outside of your professional responsibilities. If someone asks me how to get their health insurance set up, then "I don't know" is an appropriate answer since I am not an HR person. In general though, I try to point people to the right place or person in those cases.

Sometimes the right response is "I don't know, but I would estimate it to take X hours." If you are asked to give a time estimate aabout something you haven't done before and are not sure of the accuracy of the estimate, then it is uimportant to let people know that you really don't know how long it will take and that they number you are forced to give is a guess. THey will of course take it as gospel anyway so estimate on the high side anytime you don't know. But at least you can point to that "I don't know" in writing when the estimate turns out to be low.

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"I am not happy with my recent results, I can do better than this"

Be careful with this one. There are different degrees of not being happy. If you're not happy because the results are bad, then by all means you should try to improve, but if your results are good, but you think they'd be even better with extra features or other improvements, first ask yourself, are those improvements necessary? Or would they be a waste of your time? The inside of the cistern doesn't need to be polished :)

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