The Benefits of Keeping Your Mouth Shut

One could make a strong argument that the three scariest words to state aloud (particularly in the political realm) are these: I don't know. That phrase is an explicit admission that we're less than perfect. Our fear of saying I don't know is amplified by the worries that we should know it and that everyone else knows it.


There are two alternative approaches to saying I don't know. The first is to remain silent. You might look away and hide your head, try to change the subject, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee. The second, and far more damaging in the long run, is to act like you know. Think about times when you're asked a question and you're confident about the answer. Your response will be concise, definitive, and coherent. If you're anything like the rest of us, there have probably been occasions when you haven't known the answer to a question but felt compelled to respond nonetheless. In those situations, your response was probably lengthy, convoluted, and effectively meaningless. We use far more words to cover up a lack of knowledge than when we actually know what we're talking about. And because we have no idea what the hell we're talking about, we're far more likely to commit a verbal faux pas that could haunt us in the future.

The recent campaigning in the New York GOP primary provides proof positive. The majority of politicians are Christians, but man do they ever love the Jews come election season. They chow down on bagels and gefilte fish, and wax poetic about core Jewish values like education, family and hard work. But that's where they stop, and that's where John Kasich flubbed it. On a Brooklyn sidewalk, Kasich decided it was time to preach to the choir. These were his words regarding Passover: "It's a wonderful, wonderful holiday for our friends in the Jewish community." He could have stopped there and demonstrated a modicum of knowledge re the Jewish calendar and the fact that Passover was indeed approaching. But no, he felt compelled to go further and describe "the great link between the blood that was put above the lamp posts... The blood of the lamb, because Jesus Christ is known as the lamb of God. It's his blood." That statement is wrong on so many levels, but the key point is that Kasich would have been far better off keeping his mouth shut rather than spouting off gibberish that wasn't just nonsensical but was actually offensive.

While Kasich was lecturing on Judaism, Donald Trump was nearby declaring, "I love the Jews. I love'em." Trump probably couldn't even spell "Passover" or explain what it means to the Jewish people. But who cares? He loves the Jews. Notwithstanding the cloying pandering inherent in "I love the Jews," there is nothing controversial or offensive in the statement. That's partly why Trump wins. He says so little that it's difficult to assess anything he truly stands for.

The moral of the story? Do not "fake it 'til you make it." Either shut up or admit your ignorance. Acknowledging that you are not an all-knowing automaton is a sign of self-confidence. It will demonstrate your integrity, engender respect and, most significantly, encourage others to embrace the same openness. The culture of an organization, community, or family can be positively impacted when people feel comfortable about sharing their shortcomings. Over time you'll experience a greater sense of teamwork, increased risk-taking, and more innovative thinking when the fear of looking dumb is removed. It's a win-win by any standard of measure.