Go On: Ask the Stupid Question!

I was in London for the first time. Never having taken the train, I asked an attendant for help purchasing the ticket. She asked “Buy or collect?” I could only look at her, completely dumbfounded by the question. We don’t have those options for train tickets in Canada. What does ‘collect’ mean in London? I wanted to buy and I wanted to collect a ticket. Do I say both?

Seeing my lost expression, she clarified by asking “Do you want to buy or collect?” Still nothing. I decided to take a leap…a big one for a middle-aged man with post-secondary education: “What does collect mean?”

“If you pre-purchased your ticket online, you can collect it here.” Ahhhhh. Of course. Stupid question. Or was it?

Words are wrapped in so many meanings depending on time, place, inflection, culture and history. In a foreign county, many assumptions become invalid.

We experience this all the time in business. I’m working with a client with multiple service sites and while they are all part of one company, each has a different culture that applies different word choices with altered meanings unique to their location.

Experience is a real asset when it comes to new situations. You can leverage past learnings to understand what is going on. However, there is a risk that we assume we know things based on our past experience only to find we are completely wrong. Or worse yet, we succumb to a perception that everyone understands what is going on, therefore, it would appear stupid to ask someone to explain it for fear of looking stupid.

And yet, the majority of the time when I think someone else has asked a dumb question, I find that I learn something from the response. It offers a nuance I wasn’t aware of before or further reinforces and broadens my understanding.

Some of you may remember the character Horshack from the show “Welcome Back, Kotter”. Classic. Horshack was never afraid to ask a question. Never. We all need a bit of Horschack.


Here are some of the questions that I thought were stupid but turned out to be revelatory:

  • To a waiter: Is this selection any good?
  • To a store clerk selling cooking sauces: Do you have a recipe I could use with this?
  • To the teacher: Will this be on the test?

Each one of these resulted in unexpected answers that I found helpful. Each time I was glad they had the courage to ask.

Be the smart one. Ask the stupid questions.

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