Answering Questions Without A Clue — Aka Male Answer Syndrome

Personification of knowledge (Greek Επιστημη, ...
A statue of knowledge...boy or girl? Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a phrase new to me — although certainly not the behavior it describes — male answer syndrome. This weekend, the NPR show On The Media will examine this habit of answering a question with great certainty even when you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Girls and women generally don’t do this. Most of us loathe looking stupid. We also learn the odds are good that when a woman speaks out loud and clear she’s going to be ignored, shouted down or challenged — depending how testosterone-soaked the atmosphere. So before you open your mouth, you want to be fairly sure you know what the hell you are talking about. Fact-checking on your Blackberry mid-sentence, in my view, is lame.

The point of confidence is putting it out there and seeing what happens. The underlying assumption — am I right? (she asked in a female sort of way) — is that no one will challenge you if you bluster hard and loudly enough. An air of utter confidence can tend to intimidate many people.

I’ve seen it in its most toxic form, thanks to a con man (ex-felon) I dated a decade ago; “con” is short for “confidence”, both that which they so successfully radiate and cultivating their victims’ crucial confidence in them and their usurious schemes. You don’t reap the harvest without a healthy supply of seeds.

He started out in Chicago, handing out business cards covered in fancy acronyms, pretending to be a doctor. Anyone who actually knew medicine — and he chose his victims carefully — would know in a heartbeat the guy was a total liar. But so persuasive was his act that he got a local sports car dealership to send over (!) a vehicle on approval, got a bunch of women to agree to marriage thanks to the glittering CZ he slapped on their gullible fingers, then moved to New York and started all over again, this time pretending to be a lawyer.

From its first iteration, a piece by Jane Campbell in Details, 1991:

ut Male Answer Syndrome (MAS) is by no means harmless, as my friend Pauline discovered at the age of 8. She had found that eating icecream made her teeth hurt and asked her father if Eskimos had the same problem. “No”, he said. “They have rubber teeth”. Pauline repeated this information in a geography lesson and found herself the laughing stock of the class. That was how she learned that a man, even if he is your own father, would rather make up an answer than admit to his own ignorance.

Later in life women run into the same problem: Men can speak with such conviction that women may be fooled into thinking that they actually know what they are talking about.

A woman who finds herself in the midst of an impassioned argument about glasnost may suffer from an eerie sense of displacement. Has a weird time-space warp landed her in the Kremlin? No, she’s in the mailroom with Dave and Bob, who she knows for a fact read only the sports pages.

My friend Jeff (he of the Harley) is full of expertise on subjects as diverse as global warming and Elvis’ current whereabouts. In reality however, he is an expert at only one thing: making a little knowledge go a very long way. For him answering is a game, and not knowing what he is talking about just adds to the thrill.

Expressing skepticism can be highly inflammatory. Even mild-mannered Abe Lincoln types may react to “Are you sure about that?” as a vicious slur on their manhood and find themselves backing up a ludicrous assertion with spurious facts.

It took me a while to notice a variation of this pattern, most evident in my ex-husband, a medical student when we met and who became a psychiatrist. When he didn’t know the answer to something, he’d say, “I’m not sure.” He was sure, all right. He didn’t want to admit ignorance, so the dreaded words “I don’t know” never passed his lips, at least in his private life. While few patients want their doctor to say “I don’t know”, it’s a useful phrase when it’s actually true.

“Are we out of milk?” is a fairly safe question, for example. A simple yes or no would suffice.

Gentlemen, is this part of your verbal repertoire?

Ladies, what do you do, if anything, in the face of it?

30 thoughts on “Answering Questions Without A Clue — Aka Male Answer Syndrome

  1. leonkelly

    My 19-year-old son and I have a name for it. We call it “the straight face”. It is a skill about as difficult to learn as wiggling your nose or ears on demand (which I have also taught him). We have great fun providing stupid answers to stupid questions. Have I done something dastardly?

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Well, leon, here’s the rub…define “stupid.” I get asked questions I think moronic and then what? I have not mastered (nor tried) the skills of ear and nose wiggling. Hips, yes.

  3. ford

    I have the misfortune to have come of age as a young professional in an era where mistakes aren’t learning experiences, but are reasons to replace you. I wouldn’t knowingly lie to my clients, but saying I don’t know is admitting defeat (and asking to be replaced) where I’m not sure is, frankly, a safer way out. People think I’m smart and I’m not going to go out of my way to compromise that by admitting ignorance where that can be avoided. Given clients’ strong preference for knowledgeable advocates, I don’t think that’s likely to change.

    I’ve found that, generally, high achieving women (the ones I’m interested in spending time with professionally or socially) tend to want the same thing. they want a knowledgeable, confident colleague, friend, and partner. Perhaps men are more likely to answer questions to which we don’t actually know the answers, but I think it’s reinforced to both genders that it’s important that a man be opinionated and sure whenever possible – otherwise he is merely a boy.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    ford, this adds a perspective I should have considered; as someone self-employed, my “job” is not on the line in the same way.

    How, then, do you deal with the reality that, sometimes, you just do NOT know the answer — ask a client to let you call or email then later (so you can find it out, even if they don’t know that)? In a meeting, just fudge or bluff? Don’t you think being “smart” also means not misleading people?

    I hate opinionated men, although I *am* interested in hearing a man’s opinion — one that has been thought through, researched, fact-checked or been challenged and withstood that test a few times along the way.

    I have a young male relative who thumps his damn chest in every — yawn — “conversation” where we have to listen to him opine and nod in agreement to keep his ego soothed. He may be “high achieving” and opinionated but I think he’s a boring dick and so many others.

    Why does a man have to be “sure”? Sure of what? That he knows everything? No one does!

    1. ford

      Again, I would never lie to a client.

      If I don’t know the answer, saying “I don’t know” isn’t really an option. “I’ll find out” or “let me double check” is basically where I have to get to. I don’t go out of my way to answer every question, especially if I don’t know answers, but I haven’t met anybody who likes an indecisive engineer, lawyer, or boyfriend more than one who comes out with opinions.

      I tend to tread as carefully as possible around gender stereotypes, but here: When a man is unsure, women are generally less attracted to him. He gets passed over for cheery assignments at work, salesmen try to put things over on him, and generally other people try to take advantage of him. Yes, your relatives suck if they tell you lies or are aggressively confident, but statistically speaking, they’re also more likely to be successful than guys who never assert themselves, their opinions, or chime in.

  5. geekysarah

    I live with two men (gasp), my fiance and his dad. My fiance’s phrase of choice is, “Maybe.” Augh. That is not an answer to “Do you have an idea for dinner.” It’s also not an answer to, “Do you want to watch a movie?” Or any other yes or no question. He claims it’s so that I will have to make a decision. I claim it’s so that I have an excuse to make super spicy curry and watch him squirm as he tries to eat it.

    That’s not to say that he’s not smart, ask him questions about darn near anything, and he has an opinion which I can fact-check. I know I can fact check because I do, and I’m not afraid to link him things from the net which are higher up on the information food chain than either of us are.

    His dad though, bless him, he’s a quiet man and loves reading. I drive him down to the library once a week, drop him off for a couple of hours, and pick him up after class. He comes home with books covering religion, philosophy, history, math… We’re constantly talking about the stuff he’s reading, and he’s the one man I’ve ever known who has said straight to me, “I don’t know.” He’ll usually come back the next week with a book and answer my question. That, and he will give me an answer to my questions which I can work with. Thanks to him, we eat a lot of spaghetti 🙂

  6. scottchaffee

    Fer cryin’ out loud! Yuz takin’ away our guns. Yuz makin us wear seatbelts! Yuz takin’ our jobs! Now ya takin’ away our BS? Here! You can just have the thing!

  7. boyfromthebuck

    You know Caitlin, I don’t really understand what you are getting at here. I am currently in college, and it seems that a lot of females here make similar claims as the “male answer syndrome”. The girls normally forget two things about me though: 1. I am always right. 2. Girls often know the answers to their questions yet want a different answer than the truth.

  8. Ms. Kelly,

    I have to say that it is often absolutely essential to radiate certainty and confidence even when you do not know what what you are talking about or doing. There are situations where doing anything is better than doing nothing and when there are more than one person involved it means getting everyone to do the same thing. As Lyndon Johnson once noted “Nothing convinces like conviction” and that ability is an important skill. In a dangerous situation it can be the difference between life and death for people not to panic and if someone can get up and says with complete conviction and confidence; “I know what to do and how to do it, follow me”, well they might not panic and even follow. The person, and it doesn’t have to be a man but that is who we think it usually is, may not actually know what the hell to do or how to do it but when doing anything is better than doing nothing (or panicking) then that is enough. “Fake it until you make it” is often part of leadership.

    Some people, mostly men, extend this crisis mode of talk / action into more mundane situations where it may or may not be appropriate. As another correspondent noted, many people view “I don’t know” as “I an useless” so Bill Clinton’s adage about it “Being better to be wrong and strong than right and weak” is not without foundation.

    Don’t denigrate “Straight Facing It”, it is a powerful tool that requires great skill. Like any power tool and great skill, it can be used for good or evil.

    (AAA, there is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher are trapped on some planet (which somehow, like every other planet that show, looks a lot like it is in Los Angeles County) with some brain implant that allows them to read each others thoughts. Out in the chaparral of this distant planet they are wandering about with the locals in pursuit. Dr. Crusher looks about and says “Which way do we go?” and Cpt. Picard scans off camera and announces “That way!”. Dr. Crushers “You don’t actually know where we are going do you?” as she can read his thoughts. Looking back with more than bit exasperation the Captain says “What?” Dr. Crusher says “I mean, you’re acting like you know exactly which way to go, but you’re only guessing. Do you do this all the time?” Captain Picard replays: “No, but there… are times when it is necessary for a captain to give the appearance of confidence. (Episode 160 “The Attached”))

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    ford, I wonder why men are punished for being unsure — and women punished for being verbally confident, often seems to be the case. It’s as though we’re expected (really?) to defer to male “certainty” when we might be every bit as certain ourselves. There’s also, as you know, a fine line between asserting yourself and being consistently able to express an opinion — and being a bore. The fine balance is allowing women, at work and socially, enough air in the room — which doesn’t work for the shyer ones — to also express *their* opinions.

    I agree that a man or woman without a visible spine — i.e. wishy-washy and indecisive — is deeply annoying. But so, believe me, are men who think They Are Right Because They Have A Penis. And there are many of them out there.

    geekysarah, maybe take-out food will be the salvation of your future marriage, no? Your father in law to be sounds like a nice guy. Lucky you.

    davidlosangeles, I totally agree with you that decisiveness and a projected sense of what to do in a crisis are often essential. It’s when it’s done on a daily trivial basis as method of peeing on hydrants conversationally that women really, truly tire of it.

    1. geekysarah

      More often than not, he ends up putting something in the steamer, and we eat what comes out of there.

      This topic led to an interesting discussion with my two men, and (not really surprising), they had different perspectives.

      My father-in-law’s perspective was that it was not a bad thing to admit ignorance, it’s only bad if you don’t try to correct the situation. He also told me that, for him, he has no problems in asserting his opinions, because since I was the one who asked, I have no reason to be mad. Logic, gotta love it.

      My fiance’s perspective was that, as a programmer, he has to have the ‘tough-guy’ persona to assert his dominance amongst the others in his field. Having lived in the tech field for a while, I know exactly what he’s talking about. Where I’m more willing to stay quiet until I feel I know enough to contribute, he’s more willing to contribute early. When asked why, he said , “Some of those conversations are like playing poker. I know when to call, when to fold, when to bluff, and when I’ve won the hand. I play to win the pool.” When asked where his ‘maybe’ fit in, “I want you to do what you want, and not feel like you have to ask permission. Your happiness shouldn’t depend on mine, I’m just as flexible as you are, and I feel bad when I foist all the cooking on you when I know you’re tired. Maybe is just my standard phrase for that situation, and I’ve been working on finding a better one.” Awww… I love my man 🙂

  10. arbitrary

    I see this more as an example of the Dunning Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it”. So a person may honestly think they know the answer but don’t have the resources to realize they don’t. One could also view this “syndrome” as a form of pathological lying, and the subject is perhaps still unaware of their fault.

    I fail, however, to see this behavior as being gender specific. I approach things from a scientific perspective, so perhaps studies can be done to ascertain if there is truly is a difference in response between men and women when asked about knowledge they don’t possess. Until then, I don’t know if this is truly a common and male-centric phenomenon.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    arbitrary, I don’t know if any studies have been done. I would imagine there have been, as there has been a lot of attention paid to male verbal dominance in the classroom, certainly.

  12. citifieddoug

    There is no such thing as Male Answer Syndrome, although Ogogenic Credulitis went pandemic years ago- the first recorded outbreak was in Eden- and it seems to be resistant to its own serum. You can look that up.

    This does remind me of a joke I used to here in Iowa- what’s the difference between a fairy tale and a farmer? The fairy tale begins “Once upon a time…” and the farmer starts out “I’m here to tell ya and this is no sh*t…”

  13. What you’re talking about already has a name. It’s called bullshit, and there’s nothing male-centric about it, though perhaps males are less systematically abused into silence. Our schools are designed to encourage it, our businesses are designed to encourage it, and our social life is designed to encourage it. It is used to determine social pecking orders, to flirt, to make jokes, to arrive at consensus. it is integral to the storytelling process, and necessary to arrive at new truths and fictions. It is the only way for intuition to be expressed in a rational manner. It’s not necessarily a lie– it’s just bullshit. The things you say when you know you’re right, the things you say because it’s fun, the things you say to draw someone out, the things you say because you have a goal in mind, because you want to actually convince someone. You cannot lead without bullshit.

    The measure of a man, so to speak, is not how often he bullshits, but why he bullshits, and how well he does it. Doing it out of malicious intent is more than bullshit– it’s wrong. Conversely, if I read that only 35% of Tea Partiers think blacks are hard working, and then I can’t remember where I saw it or what exactly the % was, and I tell you it’s 33%, I’m kind of bullshitting you, but not very much, and certainly not enough to stay silent on the issue. There’s many degrees and many reasons for bullshit, and you really can’t make a blanket condemnation of it. Especially since EVERYBODY BULLSHITS. Even you. It’s unavoidable. A lot of women may have more fear of getting caught out, but that doesn’t change human nature.

    Yes, human nature. The fact is that the truth is so large and so complex, you can’t hold it all in at once, particularly since it seems to contradict itself at times. You can prove almost anything using logic. And your ideas, your vision of the world, even your memories are so subjective as to be virtually without basis, totally unreliable, completely corrupted by your internal biases. You literally cannot make a statement without bullshitting. At best you can state what you think is true. And we need statements. We can’t act without a position to take. If we wait for 100% certainty to open our mouths we never say anything.

    The tragedy is not that men bullshit. It’s that women are taught to defer to men on intellectual matters. It’s all the people who are out there bullshitting with the intent to deceive. What you hate is deception, not bullshit. People who can’t admit that they’re imperfect or misinformed, not people who exaggerate from time to time or make up whimsical reasons for why the world is the way that it is. Bullshit is good. Bullshit works. Don’t be hatin’.

    1. citifieddoug

      This reminds me of a story, I think by Kipling about an African who, by reputation will not tell a lie. The village chief hears of this man and can’t believe the story, so he presses the man into service as a messenger and tells him that if he lies, his life is forfeit but if he doesn’t, the chief will give him half the realm and his only daughter as a wife.

      The chief gave the man a message to carry to the chief’s brother, who is leading the village soldiers into battle, that the king will arrive at a certain place at a certain time to accompany the troops in their triumph. After the messenger departed, the King chose a different meeting place and time, to make the messenger a liar.

      When the message reached the brother in battle it was stated along the lines of “I believe I heard the King say that he intends to meet you in the cocoa grove, or thereabout, at two pm or so, possibly for the purpose of accompanying you, or maybe another brother for a purpose such as to accompany the troops or some other activity with some other party, unless I’m mistaken.”

      B.S. can be efficient, but “I don’t know” can sometimes be more efficient and silence is the most efficient speech of all, or nearly that, unless I’m mistaken.

  14. Caitlin Kelly

    uriah, call me a stuffy old fart, but I do hate bullshit. Really. I’ll push it further and re-label it ‘charm’ as that’s what it’s used for, as you point out, to charm and amuse and delight and seduce — regardless whether a word of it is true. I tend to be way too earnest, sue me, and I grew up surrounded by amusing, witty bullshit. I hate it, no matter how much we all may do it.

    Truth is complicated, but it works. As someone who relies on people’s veracity and reliability, as a journalist and some who makes agreements every week to work with people whose payments I need to trust will arrive in time to pay my bills, I have little patience for BS. I’ve heard way too much of it and it doesn’t amuse me.

  15. Caitlin Kelly

    Doug, I am bloody-minded on this topic. Silence can be passive-aggressive as hell and totally stall any communication of worth. “I don’t know”, followed by “But I’ll find out and get right back to you” seems to be a perfectly workable choice. When someone has a serious question, and needs an answer promptly with which to make a decision that may well have some serious consequences, what exactly is the value of bullshit? Ego games for the bullshitter.

    Don’t forget — as a lifelong journo — I’ve heard more bullshit in my career than most civilians ever will, PR flacks spinning shit and people covering their butts and corporate hoohah telling me they’ve God’s gift to whatever. Journos have to listen to acres and acres of bullshit for a living, which might be why it’s just not cute in the rest of our lives.

  16. citifieddoug

    By golly, I see you are bloody-minded on this topic. Maybe I can contextualize, with your permission:

    Silence is a fine option when you don’t know the answer to a question you haven’t been asked. “I don’t know” is the right answer to a question you have been asked, can’t answer and aren’t likely to investigate further. “I’ll find out and back to you” is the right answer if you will find out and get back to the asker. “I think” or “approximately” are good introductions to replies you think are sufficiently known for the conversation you are having but can’t be certain of. BS is good for when you’re at the poker table, fishing, or just home from fishing. Silence is again the right answer if you realize in advance you’ll be responding in loco perpetratoris a previous bullshitter or a series of the same.

  17. Caitlin Kelly

    As the saying goes, better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt.

    Which was the genesis of this post. 🙂

  18. Caitlin Kelly

    sarah, thanks. Interesting…

    “My father-in-law’s perspective was that it was not a bad thing to admit ignorance, it’s only bad if you don’t try to correct the situation.

    He also told me that, for him, he has no problems in asserting his opinions, because since I was the one who asked, I have no reason to be mad. Logic, gotta love it.”

    As my Dad has said to me many times, “If you don’t like the answer, don’t ask the question.”

    “My fiance’s perspective was that, as a programmer, he has to have the ‘tough-guy’ persona to assert his dominance amongst the others in his field. Having lived in the tech field for a while, I know exactly what he’s talking about.”

    Journalism is very much like this — you have to know (or pretend to know) about a lot of things and be ready to jump into all sorts of situations and sound wise or knowledgable or credible when you have only cursory or no knowledge of the topic at hand. Whether the Icelandic volcano eruption or the ID of Kristin Chenoweth (both of these topics arose converationally this morning during my group PT session), we’re expected to know what’s going on sufficiently to have something intelligent to say about it. I am always surprised (why?) when civilians have no idea about a lot of things. I take that sort of attention to the world for granted and miss it terribly when around the incurious.

    I see a few issues here, though: I think it’s smart to weigh in when you know what you’re talking about. This conversational (excuse me, but) equivalent of pissing on a fire hydrant to show dominance strikes me as…sad.

    So a man who is, by nature or culture, shyer or more quiet is seen everywhere as dull, stupid and unattractive while the blowhards grab the brass ring? Sigh.

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