I've noticed a trend recently, working as a programmer. If I mention to someone in passing that I don't know something, more often than not, the person/people I'm talking with will start to explain it to me, without being asked.

On the outset, I would say this is a good thing ™️. Recently, however, I've started noticing that I don't always want to be explained what something is. It really comes down to if the explanation belongs to an active or passive context.

Active Context Explanations

(I sure am coining a lot of phrases lately).

Active Context Explanations are explanations someone shares with you where the information is directly pertinent to the task at hand. Here is an example from a hypothetical pair programming session:

  • A: "I think we'll want to use a the flatmap function here instead of a regular map"
  • Me: "I don't know what that is."
  • A: < gives a brief explanation >
  • Me: Cool - so I just write it like this ? ….
  • A: Looks good - let's test that and see how it works.

We stay focused, I learn something new, and we move on to the next thing!

Passive Context Explanations

These seem to happen to me when in casual conversation about something and someone refers to a technical thing I don't know, to which I express out loud that Oh, I've never heard/used/tried that before, which is subsequently followed with an unasked for explanation.

I find PCE's to be particularly problematic when we are trying to solve problem A and then unknown concept Z shows up and starts getting explained. If we're in the middle of working on a task, this causes a sidebar distraction, which is usually harmless ( but can lead down some rabbit holes totally unrelated to what we might be focusing on).


  • A: In order to achieve Z we need to do E and F - it's kind of the opposite of how X technology handles the Y problem
  • Me: I've never heard of the Y Problem
  • A: < proceeds to explain something tangentially related >

So what's the problem here?

Well, it's not really a problem, perhaps so much as a preference. Let me preface this with the following:

  • I wish to work with people who are happy to share their knowledge.
  • I love learning from people
  • I love asking questions
  • I want to be advocate for workplaces/teams where saying "I don't know" is supported.

The last part is important, and most of the reason I'm writing about this.

I want to be able to show people that I'm keen to keep learning, that I don't know everything, and that I'm okay with that. In fact, these days, the majority of the time I say "I don't know something" it's because I want to demonstrate that value (it's not always easy) and not to be given a Passive Context Explanation.

I suppose I believe that if workplaces and teams encourage the vulnerability of admitting what you don't know you might be able to get some of the following:

  • more rapid onboarding and mentoring
  • more honest collaboration
  • less pretense/pretending we know things, which can lead to incidents/outages, etc.

Why am I sharing all of this with you? Well, the act of saying I don't know more often means I get things explained at me more often. Sometimes it's exactly what I need, and sometimes it isn't. By trying to live the values listed above, I've also started to expose myself to something that can be frustrating or distracting.

So… shouldn't I just stop saying I don't know?

I'm not sure. I don't have an answer to that yet, and that's part of the reason I'm typing this out.

How can we approach explaining things?

I have a few ideas. Let's throw the proverbial spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks (and then still eat what fell on the floor, because why waste spaghetti?)

I think at the bare minimum, if person A says they don't know something and person B does know that thing (and likes to share knowledge) they might consider asking if Person A would be interested in learning about the subject.

Here's one way that might positively play out:

Person B: I'm fairly familiar with topic X. If you're interested in learning more about it I could share what I know!

Person A: Yeah, definitely! I would like to learn more, but I think we should finish this task first; if I change contexts I might get a bit overwhelmed switching gears at the moment. Maybe we can grab a (e)-coffee this week and chat about it?

Person B: Sounds good!


I guess I would call these moments a microtransaction in our daily communication. I don't profess to have answers (if you're looking for those, you are in the wrong corner of the internet), but I find writing about these things helps me externalize my process when it comes to day to day communication.