Admitting Ignorance

Trying to maximize a free hour one afternoon, I stepped into a nearby but unfamiliar beauty salon, for some much-needed self-care. The woman threading my eyebrows was obviously new to the job and painfully insecure about her capacity. In the twenty minutes required for the job, she maintained a constant chatter in a voice that betrayed her nervousness, complaining at some point that my face is too moisturized,  implying that her lack of dexterity was my fault. She finished by advising me to switch to waxing.

If this minor incident took place ten years ago, I wouldn\’t have known to not complain – I would have at least made my discomfort known. But experience and years of observation have dulled my sharp edges and I kept quiet during the poor woman\’s charade. I even managed a \’thank you\’ and \’Konjo new\’ – a kind description of my uneven brows.

However, the fact that I didn\’t complain didn\’t mean that I wasn\’t upset at the way the woman handled her inexperience. I thought to myself how wonderfully refreshing it would have been for her to say, \’\’I am new at this\’\’ or \’\’Be patient with me, I am just learning to thread.\’\’ It would have been disarming and I would have been rooting for her to do a good job instead of being complicit in her cover up of something she had no reason to be ashamed of.

Alas, our culture isn\’t one that encourages us to admit inexperience or ignorance. Moderators of so-called educational radio shows laugh out-loud when callers make mistakes, making me wonder at the courage of those who make the calls. Teachers find it easier to shush students rather than investigate an answer they don\’t know and doctors will insist on a prognosis proved elsewhere to be wrong.

This trend, the fear of appearing ignorant when one is, in fact, is dangerous and it is ubiquitous. I see it everyday – in the driver who curses out fellow drivers who point out that he\’s stepped into a ditch right in front on him, and in the house help who will try to figure out use of the microwave, at great peril rather than admit she has never used one. It is an ego- based system which is cowardly and extremely costly, both in terms of personal relationships and in the larger scheme, for Ethiopia, and her stabs at development.

So, what are we going to do about yet another culture-based problem? As adults, I would argue that being conscious is key. If we are self-aware enough to catch our ego as we are tempted to stammer through another presentation we haven\’t prepared ourselves for, or to fake knowledge of data downloading so as to not appear ignorant, we have won half the battle.

Beyond engagement with the ego, the antidote I have found for the temptation to deny ignorance (which, as the saying goes, may be bliss but which is still a scary place for most)

is, like most solutions, deceptively simple. When tempted to deny my ignorance, I ask myself if it would be terrible to say \’I don\’t know\’ about some things when there are so many things that I do know – and I find that it is instead greatly liberating.

We may have been parented or taught in a way that shamed admitted not knowing but it doesn\’t mean we can\’t change that tendency now. Practice saying \’I don\’t know\’ a few times a day and see what freedom it can bring. Although I struggle with this one, I would also advice getting into the habit of describing the dumbest thing you did today to your spouse, partner or best friend – learning to laugh at yourself while you\’re at it.

I learnt the power of admitting lack of expertise as a driver who took ten years to get on the road, and who made mistakes that are talked about to this day. At first, I was blasé about the fact that I had only recently started to drive, chatting to friends I was giving rides to (brave souls!) as if I had done it for years. However, I found that admitting that I was new at this driving business, and yes, nervous, about driving in our chaos of a city endeared me to passengers who all told me that I was doing well.

Admitting inexperience was something I had to work on but I want to raise my children so they never have to. I encourage my three-year old to ask what she doesn\’t know, and several times a day, she tells me, \’alawkewim\’ (I don\’t know that) without any sense that its wrong. If I have any say over it, she will never be laughed at for not knowing something and she won\’t have to learn to cover up her ignorance or inexperience.

Back at the hair salon, I did not get change to tip the woman who threaded my brows but then again, I withheld complaint which must have been what she was afraid of. Perhaps that was tip enough.