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
flatmapfunction here instead of a regular
- 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
Zwe need to do
F- it's kind of the opposite of how
X technologyhandles the
- Me: I've never heard of the
- 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.