Unknown Unknowns

Have you ever had the experience of asking a salesperson in a store where they keep the ‘Widgets’ and being told that it is not an item they carry? Have you ever stumbled across the item later in a random aisle elsewhere in the store? When you find that salesperson again and tell them politely that they actually do carry the item, have you ever gotten the response, “Oh, you meant a ‘Widget’! That’s what we call it here.” 

Hidden in there is the claim that the salesperson actually does know his stuff but that it is your fault for asking for the wrong thing. It’s particularly frustrating when it’s an item that doesn’t have too many variations on its name. That store may call it a ‘commode congestion removal device’, but most of the world calls it a plunger.

Why is it so hard to say, “I don’t know?” I don’t expect people in a business to know everything, I just expect them to be able to get me the answer. If they have to refer me to someone else, so what?  If that person were paid on a commission basis, do you think they would casually dismiss someone with a, “We don’t carry that item”?  Or would they lift every rock in the store to find something like it?

Why is it that some people would rather lose a sale than appear to be stupid?

Donald Rumsfeld often spoke of the difficulties of preparing for armed conflict. He said you had to be ready for three things.

  1. Known Knowns. The Things you now you know. You might call these strengths.
  2. Known Unknowns. The things you know you don’t know. You might call these weaknesses.
  3. Unknown Unknowns. The things you don’t know you don’t know. You might call these a problem.

Obviously, of the three, the third is the most dangerous. The only way to make it worse, is to pretend that you do know what you don’t know.

My buddy Craig and I have encountered this mentality so many times, that it is now a game with us to find in a store whatever item the employee told us they didn’t carry. We succeed a majority of the time. Only rarely does the employee apologize and say, “I’m an idiot. So sorry about that.” Usually they find a way to make it our fault.

It’s funny that these days I consider someone more of an expert, and more to be trusted, if they say this simple phrase, “I don’t know. Give me a moment to find out.”