Jeremy Côté

Stating My Ignorance

Let me share a scenario that I’ve been in a lot, and I want you to think about if you’ve had a similar experience.

I’m listening to an explanation of someone who is “above” me in their academic career. This tends to be a professor, researcher, or maybe even my supervisor. They are explaining some technical detail of an idea. Every so often, they look my way and end their sentence in a way that asks if I’m following.

My response?

Almost always, I nod. Even if I’m not really following anymore.

Many times, I will tell myself that I just missed a little detail and I’ll catch up on the context in a moment. I have this idea that understanding scientific details is like reading fiction: if I miss a sentence, I can probably grasp the general idea by looking at the surrounding context.

The problem is that this never happens. Instead, once I realize that I don’t understand what the person was talking about, it’s so late in the conversation that interrupting feels even more disruptive. The result is that I keep my ignorance quiet, telling myself that I will figure it out on my own when I’m alone.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

I would consider myself as someone who likes to be the least disruptive. As such, I’ll nod along to the explanations that people give, even if I don’t follow them. Voicing my ignorance feels uncomfortable, like I should understand on the first try. Honestly, it makes me feel like I have failed in some way. Saying, “I understand” even if I don’t is easier for me.

I don’t know how common this is with students and scientists (like myself), but in talking with a friend after he saw my recent comic shown above, he told me about similar situations he had been in. He then told me how, now that he’s beginning his doctoral studies, this habit is going to change. Instead, he will speak up when he isn’t following what a person is saying. My friend brought up the example of his own supervisor, who makes sure to interject whenever things aren’t clear to him. Even as an established researcher in the field, he gets things clarified when he doesn’t understand instead of pretending everything is fine.

When I think about the reasons I stayed silent or said I understood when I did not, these two come to mind:

Maintaining an image of intelligence is something I’ve thought a lot about. As someone who has done well in school in the past, it’s uncomfortable to admit when I have no clue what is happening. Being honest about that has been a struggle in the past for me, and it’s something I preferred to hide. However, I realized that this was harming me. Plus, the harm was worse than the discomfort of admitting I had no idea what was happening. When framed from that perspective, the choice of voicing my ignorance was straightforward. By saying, “I don’t know,” I would be able to patch my understanding in that moment.

In terms of bothering people, I’ve found that most are happy to take the time to explain topics if asked. This shouldn’t be too surprising to me. After all, a large part of being a scientist is explaining to others! And yet, I still can’t help but feel that asking for clarification in the midst of an explanation is bothersome.

One strategy I’ve thought about is categorizing my uncertainty into two piles. The first pile comprises things that can be clarified on my own with no harm. This might be a specific technical detail or a conceptual issue. The exact nature of the detail doesn’t matter. What matters is if it will have knock-on effects to the rest of the explanation someone is giving.

The second pile consists of items that need to be addressed immediately because of their later importance. If I’m having a conversation with someone and there’s a detail I don’t understand which will form the backbone of the rest of their explanation, I need to speak up. The reason is simple: I won’t be able to follow the rest of the work after. To me, this is a clear reason to interrupt and say that I don’t understand. If I don’t do anything, I will be lost for the rest of the discussion. If you don’t want to be a nuisance, then voicing your uncertainty early on is much better, since the other person won’t waste time explaining the next parts a second time.

Sorting what someone says into these two piles isn’t always easy. I’m still struggling with speaking up when I don’t understand. But it’s crucial if my overall goal is to learn something new. Learning doesn’t happen if I nod along to everything that a teacher says. It happens when I confront what I thought I knew with what is actually correct, and requires becoming okay with saying I don’t understand.

This is why it’s so important to me to become comfortable with the people I work with. If I’m intimidated (even subconsciously) by a person’s position of power or title, I’ll tend to say little. What I’m doing here is robbing myself of learning opportunities in order to maintain appearances. But who cares how good I look if I don’t understand?

As I begin my PhD studies, stating my ignorance is going to be on the top of my agenda. If I’m not following, I’m not going to nod along just to make the other person think I’m following. I’m resolving to stop the conversation, dig deeper into my confusion, and come out with a greater understanding.