I was talking to a friend last night and I mentioned that I had listened to “Ghost” by Ella Henderson eight consecutive times en route to our get together. She narrowed her eyes thinkingly and stared past me and nodded her head. The song title and the artist clearly rang no bells. I asked if she knew the song I was referencing.
“Oh yeah… yeah I think I know which one you’re talking about”
I told her that it was alright if she didn’t, and that I had just discovered the song earlier that evening.
In a defensive tone she said: “No, no. I know the song.”
Now, at this point I was certain that she did not know the song, so that’s what I told her.
It is disarming and tactless to tell someone that they are, in other words, lying to you -- so perhaps it was an unfair gesture.
But rather than get upset she conceded some ground and said: “Wait, no I’m sure I do, remind me how it goes?”
I sung the chorus and she said “Yeah, yeah, totally. I totally know that song.”
She never knew the song. I know she didn’t because I’ve been there. The dialogue may not provide clear and conclusive evidence that she didn’t know the song — but it was a sure thing. There is a certain squint/head-nod that serves as a dead give away in conversations like this. I have had plenty of opportunities to develop a precise sensitivity to the signals — because I encounter them several times each day. And I have also become very adept at navigating conversations where I have no idea what is being referenced. We are all pretenders.
It seems to me that we are all afraid to admit that we don’t know a little something about everything. Nowadays it is impossible to tell anyone something that they haven’t already “heard about.”
Earlier this week my friend lamented what a shame it was that Atticus Finch turned out to be a racist. Though I had not read Harper Lee’s new book, I corrected him, and insisted that Atticus didn’t “turn out to be” anything, because the new book was, in fact, a prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. It turns out that this is completely untrue — the book is set twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, and my friend's original comment was logically sound. But he backed off, because his opinion was based on a tweet. My opinion was based on an unfounded feeling, or on nothing. I have a lot of conversations like this. Sometimes they even escalate into civil arguments — where neither party betrays their sources. There are no sources. Why do we insist on playing pretend?
Why is it that we all feel like we need to have an opinion about everything? I speculate that we process so many thousands of unique bits of information everyday, that we just assume we actually have heard of everything. Or we’re afraid that everyone else seems to know a bit about everything, so we try and play along.
I’ll come out at the expense of my dignity, in the hopes that it will lift the burden of pretense off of anyone reading this: I don’t know very much about very much.
I think that it is important to acknowledge this so that we can start having real conversations again — by digging in and prodding when we don’t know something, rather than fearing whatever it is we seem to fear so much when we are afraid to ask questions. Maybe if we allow ourselves to recognize that we are all dancing around each other, we’ll stop fearing judgment.
I, for one, am going to stop playing the game. If you mention an app or a song or a microbrewery or a book or a company that I have never heard of (or have heard of but know nothing about), I promise I won’t say: “Oh yeah.. yeah I know what you’re talking about. Go on.” Instead I’ll say: “I don’t actually know that band.” And then you can tell me about something that I don’t know anything about, and we can have a real conversation.
If none of this resonates with you, then here is what I suggest you try: make up an Indie sounding band name or a believable tabloid-worthy storyline and casually insert them into conversations, and watch what happens. More often than not you’ll get a squint and a head not and a flimsy confirmation. The other day, in between bites of lunch, I mentioned to a friend that Jennifer Anniston had announced her retirement from acting, and his response was: “I think I heard something about that.”
Of course, he hadn’t heard anything about it, because it had never happened — but you and I probably would have said the same thing.
Can we all just agree that it is okay not to know things? Please? Just because we have access to the world’s information at the stroke of our thumbs, doesn’t mean we’re obligated to systematically process and retain it all. In fact, the only way we will ever be able to really learn anything at all is if we admit that we don’t know much. The smartest person in the room is most often the one who is willing to admit when he doesn’t know something — the one who doesn’t let hubris or insecurity prevent him from asking for an explanation. Over time, if we can collectively agree to stop pretending that we know things, we’ll all be able to teach each other a whole lot more.
For more musings, follow Matt on Twitter → @mattryanrich