It’s embarrassing to admit but for much of my life I have pretended I know what's going on when I don't, for fear of being "caught out". In the school cafeteria when people talked about TV shows I didn’t have the channels for, or on MSN Messenger when I read unfamiliar song lyrics my friends had shared, I'd pretend to recognise what they were talking about, like everyone else. As I got older, I adopted my façade at dinner tables during discussions of global politics and in pub smoking areas while people rambled on about Quentin Tarantino.
I did this, as I assume many others did, out of fear of appearing ignorant. I didn’t want to be seen not to understand things, especially if they were things that people I wanted to respect me were fluent in. I thought that if I didn’t know what was going on, it betrayed a moral failing and exposed me as someone who, underneath it all, was deeply uncool and actually, a bit stupid.
And so I nodded along silently or joined in spouting waffle, praying I wouldn’t be found out which, embarrassingly, I sometimes was. I would follow up each incident with some diligent homework on the subject, racing to justify my charade.
With the advent of social media, the number of people who I've wanted to impress has only grown. When our networks became digital and grew to include hundreds of people we may never meet face-to-face, the number of opinions, favourite films, political stances and senses of humour I felt I was expected to have expanded beyond anything I could imagine. My pretence of being knowledgeable about everything spilled over into the digital world and left me scrolling through Twitter late at night, feigning knowledge of The Sopranos just so I didn’t have to disengage.
Unsurprisingly, it all became far too much and recently I've found myself disengaging entirely, wondering why I didn't do so ages ago. I had become overwhelmed by the number of things I didn’t know about (and hadn’t found the time to research). From politics to pop culture – even memes. I just felt exhausted by it all.
And so I made a decision. I decided to stop nodding along blithely at the pub while frantically googling the plot of Succession under the table. Instead, I'm embracing saying what is really true: that I don’t know what the other person is talking about. Instead of scrambling to make up some witty opinion about a show I've never seen, I'll say something like: "I’ve heard of that show but I haven’t watched it yet." Saying "I don't know" is such a simple, obvious thing to say that I’m embarrassed it took me so long to start.
Well actually, it’s not that simple. Telling someone you don’t know what they’re talking about can be a tricky business. Sometimes, the people you want to impress really do need to be impressed, and they may already have biases about you, based on ingrained prejudices (be they racist, sexist, ableist and so on). This dynamic is especially apparent if there’s a power imbalance, say at a job interview, where a shared cultural knowledge may be the only way to level the playing field – so pretending is an understandable form of protection. But this is inherently unfair, and should be challenged.
While it is a privilege to feel safe enough to push back, it’s become one of my favourite ways of making people reassess their assumptions about a certain issue. Why should I understand that cricket metaphor? And why does it reflect badly on me if I don’t have time to keep up with the intricacy of how our government works? What are you saying about your position – and consequently mine – when you make these assumptions? Slowly, by doing this, I hope to help create an environment where people are more willing to ask questions about things they don’t understand. It’s not about celebrating ignorance, but offering a way of overcoming it. When I say I don’t understand something, I hope people see it as an invitation to teach me. And the kind of people who meet my questioning with derision are the kind I would desperately like to lose from my life.
We live in such unbearably tumultuous times that it is natural to want to cling to absolute truths and opinions that we can voice with confidence. Saying you don't know can feel exposing. But it’s that little bit of honesty that sets us on a more equal footing.
When it comes to the bigger, more urgent political or identity driven conversations, we of course have a responsibility to educate ourselves; equally, where possible, we have a responsibility to create spaces where people can admit gaps in knowledge, and then learn. When ignorance and misinformation is such a huge factor in our current political landscape, being able to be honest about what we understand, or struggle to, is as good a start as any in countering it. Even better? You'll never get caught in an awkward lie again.