How Stupid Are You Willing to Look?

I was working my first proposal-writing job for a defense contractor inside the Beltway when I learned a professional habit that more often than not has saved my life: I learned to ask stupid questions.

A “stupid” question is usually one where you admit to ignorance about the content of or circumstances surrounding your work. It is not, as some technical folk might think, a desperate cry for help or an admission that you’re somehow broken or inferior.

The trick is to know when a “stupid” question is not really stupid.

Can you look it up?

With the internet at our disposal and the tons of internal paperwork every organization seems to generate these days, it is entirely possible that “the truth is out there” if you look hard enough. Let’s say you’ve looked around and you’ve either not found your answer or you’ve found a possible answer…or multiple answers…or answers that make no sense. You can at least go back to the person who said the perplexing thing, show that you’ve done your due diligence, and you still don’t get it.

Are you expected to know the fact/topic at hand?

When I was in high school and college, I would occasionally catch the teachers deliberately talking over the students’ heads, using unfamiliar words or terminology either to keep us from knowing what was going on or just to show that they were smarter than us. That habit doesn’t change for some people once you get out of school. They’ll make little comments that only someone with a Ph.D. in astrodynamics or a J.D. or M.D. would understand or find funny. So maybe two people get the joke or understand the reference and everyone else in the room is thinking “What did she just say?”

Being the token English major among engineers and scientists for over ten years now, I’m used to hearing words or concepts that sail over my head. I’m willing to pull my English Major card, raise my hand, and ask, “What the heck did you just say?”

Likewise, when I’m editing, I will try to do some basic research to see if I can find a likely source for an acronym or a for-dummies version of whatever I just read on the page. I consider myself smart up to a point, but when I reach that point where it would take me more than an hour to understand something well enough translate it into Management English, I will finally raise the surrender flag.

The situation that spurred this particular blog topic was a proposal I was writing that involved translating a set of calculus derivatives into Government English. I got about as far as I could, realized that I was still paying for not proceeding past trigonometry, and finally wrote, “This is what I think you mean: blahblahblah. Could you tell me if I’m correct or try to include some more layman’s/non-calculus English to make what you said clearer?”

Is the topic new?

The boss has just informed you about a project you’ve never heard about but you’re supposed to become an expert about it in an hour before you go talk to a customer. There comes a point where faking it is not a good idea. If you’ve got a compressed amount of time to learn something, you should give yourself the freedom to ask, “What is that? Who’s the customer? When is it due? Where do I get that information? What am I expected to do? What is the customer expecting me to do for them?”

You might be a miracle worker in some situations, but you cannot make up facts, nor should you.

Do you have to ask the question right now?

When I worked in one department of Disney, I was known to raise “the Bart hand” in meetings. I was a little impatient with a lot of little tasks they would have us do or additional meetings they would ask us to attend when I had what I considered productive work to do. After about the third time of asking my favorite question, the director saw my hand and said, “Yes, Bart. This meeting is really necessary.” So a word to the wise: you might not want to become that guy/gal who has a habit of asking impolitic questions.

On the other hand, if you have a specific situation that requires that you know the answer right away because you’ve got a specific situation going on that will prevent you from complying (“Do I really need to attend that meeting?”), you can always ask after the meeting.

You can also ask a coworker after the meeting (or quietly, on paper, during the meeting) if you need to know something right away.

Does the information affect you personally?

If you hear something, say, in a meeting that you don’t understand but that doesn’t apply to you, leave it alone. Asking questions about something that does not pertain to your work or personal job security, you’re just being nosy and taking up unnecessary time.

There are a few exceptions to this, lest you think I’m being too harsh. If you are expected to know or learn something from what’s being said and it’s outside your range of responsibility, action, or expertise, jump right in. If you think a situation like a policy change might affect you, phrase your question that way. Otherwise, you’re just getting involved in other people’s business unnecessarily. Yes, you might be curious about why X department suddenly has to change how it handles its paperwork. Do you absolutely need to know why that instant? (Can you tell I was the kind of person who asked too many questions as a kid?)

Balancing asking “stupid” questions with educating yourself

I’ve talked about this previously, but the real importance of learning when to ask a question comes down to one of time: how valuable is the time of the person you’re asking, and can you find out the answer yourself without pestering your subject matter expert? There are gobs of facts out there within reach of Google or any other search engine you care to name (I prefer StartPage). You can get facts from reputable sources. If you can’t find the answer you’re looking for, or you need an answer clarified, then you can ping your SME.

SMEs can provide you with answers that are not in the textbooks, technical publications, or the blogosphere. They speak from experience and appreciate reasonable questions asked with a constructive purpose in mind. Some of the best moments on the job can occur when you ask a question and your SME tilts their head and says, “Hm. I hadn’t thought of that. I wonder if…” That, my friends, is not a stupid question. You might have just added value and made yourself a subject matter expert.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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