And why it’s a bad idea
It’s the kind of thing that happens to all of us now and then.
Just the other day, I was having lunch with a somewhat imposing young film student to talk about the possibility of his doing a YouTube video to promote my novel. He was both handsome and British, which is a combination that tends to unnerve me. He was describing a particular kind of film montage technique and I was trying hard to follow him.
“You know what I mean,” he was saying, “It’s what ______ often did at the beginning of all his early films.” The student dropped the name of a director who, I could tell from the confident tone of the student’s voice, I was supposed to know. So I murmured “Uh-huh,” though I had no idea at all who this director was.
This kind of bluffing can be risky, even though in many instances failing to confess one’s ignorance will cause you no trouble—the reference is touched upon briefly, the conversation goes on to something else and no one is the wiser. However, in this case, we stayed on the subject of said director for some time. The result? I felt lost, with a growing panic inside even as I smiled and nodded. And of course it is much worse to confess after five minutes has passed. Every second you let the pretense go on, the more ridiculous you feel when you have to admit, “Actually, I don’t know what you are talking about.” I was a prisoner—a prisoner of my lie.
There are many reasons why pretending you know something you don’t is a bad idea. The two most important of these are: 1) You are no longer a full participant in the conversation, because you are, to a certain extent, faking it. The quality of the conversation is affected, especially as you are now spending some of your energy trying not to get caught. And 2) You may actually get caught, when your conversational partner suddenly asks you something specific about the subject at hand. (“Which is your favorite of his films?”) And getting caught pretending to know about a book, a director, a town in Italy, a trendy restaurant or a politician can be much more embarrassing than acknowledging your ignorance in the first place.
It’s better to come clean. For one thing, if you admit your ignorance, the other person gets the pleasure of enlightening you. Most people like to teach people things; it makes them feel slightly superior. You are also indicating to the other person that you are actually listening to every word he is saying, that you are committed to having a meaningful conversation, not one where you just skate through. You are willing to sacrifice your ego for the benefit of the exchange.
After all, whatever the reason that you are having this conversation—with the possible exception of a job interview—it will be more successful if you are connecting as honestly and as fully as possible. And you can’t really do that if you are only partly aware of what the other person is trying to say. If the other person is describing how a particular author made her feel when she was young and you only pretend to know the author in question, you are not going to be able to empathize as much as you should.
Some people in this situation will interject something like, “Wait—have I seen her/him/it in the news recently?” in the hope of getting enough additional information that it will either jog their memory or they won’t really need to know more to continue the conversation. Others will just change the subject as soon as they can.
But ultimately, covering up takes too much energy and confessing is the best way to become better informed. After your initial embarrassment, you will feel relieved at not having to pretend. The other person may even respect you more for admitting you don’t know what they are talking about.
At lunch with the film student, I finally steeled myself, looked right into his handsome face and said, “To tell you the truth, I actually don’t know that director. I don’t know why I said I did, actually.” (I tend to use the word “actually” a lot when I am with Brits.)
“Oh, he’s fairly obscure,” he responded with a reassuring smile. And then he went on to describe exactly the kind of opening montage he meant when he brought the director up.
I vowed right then and there to try never to fake it again. There is too much to learn and too little to lose.
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