It's often said that “there are no stupid questions” — an alternative expression is “there is no such thing as a dumb question” — although, admittedly, asking someone “When did wild poodles roam the Earth?” could be said to be pushing the boundary.
As we see in this Wikipedia entry:
Carl Sagan, in his work The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark said: “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”
Also in this Wikipedia entry, we see:
A woman, recounting a story about an old man who used to answer all her “stupid questions” explained, “Chica, if you ask a question it makes you look stupid for five minutes — but if you don't ask — you stay stupid for 50 years, so always ask questions in your life.”
The problem is that the people who most need to ask the questions are often the ones who are too embarrassed, nervous, or shy to pose them. To illustrate this, let me take you on a journey deep into the mists of time to when I was a very junior engineer (cue wobbly visual effects and “I'm having a flashback” music).
When I graduated from university in 1980, my first position was at International Computers Limited (ICL) at their West Gorton facility in Manchester, England, where I became a member of a team designing central processing units (CPUs) for room-size mainframe (“Big Iron”) computers.
I was one of a group of junior engineers who all started at the same time. We were taken under the wings of some more-experienced engineers who were slightly older than ourselves (say three to five years older).
ICL provided a very nurturing environment, including the idea of mentoring, which I will discuss in a future column. One thing the company was very keen on was continuing education. Once every couple of weeks, we would be informed that there was to be a guest lecture. We would all gather together at the specified time and place to hear someone talk about some aspect of computing.
This was all very informal. Oftentimes we would all end up in a room sitting in a semicircle with whoever was giving the talk at the center of the circle, waffling on, gesticulating, and occasionally drawing diagrams on a whiteboard.
The reason I'm telling you all this is that whoever was giving the lecture often used a term with which I was not familiar or skimmed over a new concept too quickly for me to catch the gist, leaving me sitting there thinking “Arrggghhh!” (or words to that effect).
Of course, there was nothing to stop me from questioning the instructor, but I found it difficult to persuade myself to do so. Perhaps, deep down, I was scared that the other engineers would laugh at me or think I was stupid.
The thing is that almost every time I had such a question and I was wrestling with myself trying to persuade myself to say something, one of the older guys — Joe Taylor (an interesting guy who made violins as a hobby) — would invariably put his hand up, say “Excuse me,” and then ask the question I'd been wanting to ask. (Once again, when I say “older guys,” you have to appreciate that I mean “older compared to the rest of us” — Joe was probably only in his mid-20s at the time of this tale.)
As an aside, it never struck me until today (while writing this column) to wonder why it was that none of the other older engineers ever asked a question. Mayhap it was because they were incredibly clever and already knew all the answers. Or maybe, just maybe, it was because they were worried about looking foolish in front of us younger engineers.
The end result was that, every time Joe asked the question that was in my mind, I would think to myself “Thank you, Joe!” Furthermore, the lecturers never said anything like “Well, that's a stupid question, isn’t it?” Instead, they always said, “That's a really good question because… and the answer is…” Sometimes I learned more from the questions and answers than I did from the body of the lecture itself.
After a few months, I finally gained the courage to raise my hand and start asking questions. This sort of thing gets so much easier as you get older. These days I have no problems whatsoever asking questions about anything under the sun. In fact, if there are younger engineers in the room and I see they are looking puzzled, I may ask a question or two just to help them out.
OMG! I just realized that maybe this is what Joe was doing all those years ago. The reason I say this is that — outside of the lectures — Joe always seemed to know everything and to have the answers to any questions we asked. Hmmm. That tricky little rascal. I'm metaphorically doffing my cap to him as I pen these words.
The bottom line is that, if you are an engineer of any age and you don't understand something that someone is telling you, never, never, never be afraid to raise your hand and say “Excuse me, but…” I can practically guarantee you that someone else will be thinking “Thank goodness someone else asked that, otherwise I'd never have a clue what was going on.”
How about you? Have you ever found yourself listening to someone talk and thinking “Just a minute, what does that mean?” or “Hang on, that doesn’t make sense,” but you didn’t feel confident enough to ask the question that would have resolved the issue?