When Should I Admit That I Don’t Understand

Ben Bradford, from The Wisdom of Not Understanding:

Too often we are embarrassed to admit that we don’t understand what we are told. We don’t want to appear stupid to the speaker or others in the audience. But more people should ask questions, because others may be just as confused but not want to speak up. There is no shame in not understanding something, and it’s a good lesson to remember that. Asking for clarification not only helps both the speaker and listener communicate more effectively, it is also a powerful tool in revealing bullshit.

Bradford starts off talking about a terrible, new-agey, pseudo-science film which a friend was discussing with him. I’ve had that same conversation, about the same film. So I understand what he’s saying, and I understand the point he’s making. My issue with his assertion is that he doesn’t seem to make the distinction between when one doesn’t understand something versus when one doesn’t understand someone.


This is an important distinction. When one encounters something dubious, confusing, or questionable, (such as the movie What the Bleep Do We Know,) admitting lack of understanding can lead to self-improvement. (yeah!)

[ walking out of a theatre ]
“Craig, what did you think of the movie?”
“Dude, I’m totally confused. How could Rosebud have been [redacted]? How did I miss that?!”
[ …conversation goes on. Happy friend. yeah! ]


On the other hand, when one encounters someone espousing dubious, confusing, or questionable ideas, one must tread carefully. Unilaterally saying, “I don’t understand,” to friends and family will come across as a back-handed insult. They will interpret, “I don’t understand,” to imply, “you are not making sense,” or worse, “you are stupid.” Bye-bye friends and family. (boo!)

[ entering the coffee shop ]
“Hey Craig, I saw this great movie! It was about a [redacted] named George Orwell and it was looking for some a citizen named Rosebud.”
“Dude, I’m totally confused. How can [redacted] be named Georege Orwell… I thought he wrote the movie script?”
[ …reflects negatively on friend. Friend is unhappy. boo! ]

Suddenly, (awesome film by the way,) I have to either smile and bear the nonsense, or start picking the nonsense apart bit by bit until my friend realizes they are confused and don’t understand.

I’ve sometimes, (often?,) been accused of lacking social skills. Nay, I suggest that some people’s signal-to-noise ratio is low, and I am simply not interested in fixing everyone I encounter.

(See also Megalomania. But, then, also Imposter Syndrome.)