Why Men Can’t Admit They Don’t Know Something
Anyone can show symptoms of Male Answer Syndrome, but let’s face it—it’s an affliction commonly found in dudes
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My friend Ace and I were hiking somewhere in the Utah desert several years ago when he asked me, “Have you ever heard of Male Answer Syndrome?” The way he said it, I knew he was about to tell me something funny, the way someone asks, “Have you heard the one about the pirate who walks into a bar with a steering wheel sticking out of his pants?”
Male Answer Syndrome, Ace explained to me as we hiked along, is when a man is asked a question and, despite not knowing the correct answer, starts talking anyway, instead of just saying, “I don’t know.”
For example, you might ask me if Tolstoy used a typewriter, and I might start talking about things like when the typewriter was invented, I don’t know, maybe mid-1800s, seems possible, I don’t actually know the exact dates of Tolstoy’s life, but I did read War and Peace about 20 years ago, even though I put it down for over a year after reading the first 300 pages, but then I picked up right where I left off and finished it, and it was about the War of 1812, so Tolstoy must have written it after that, although I’m not sure of the publication date, but it seems like maybe it would be possible that he wrote it on a typewriter? This example actually happened in my house the other day, with my wife, Hilary, asking that exact question, maybe rhetorically.
When Ace told me about Male Answer Syndrome, I laughed, because I’d definitely been symptomatic for most of my life, probably starting in high school, or maybe even before that. If someone asked a question out loud while in my presence, I rarely said, “I don’t know”—I preferred to act, like I’ve seen many men do, as if the question asker was trying to open a jar of pickles and was holding it out to me and everyone else present, asking, “Wanna take a crack at it?”
And I did. I have guesstimated driving time from one place to another in a city where I’d only spent two hours (“I think that’s in neighborhood X and we’re in neighborhood Y, and I believe they’re on opposite sides of the city”). I have lobbed out theories about restaurant-menu items I’ve never heard of with amateur linguistics, guessing about names of cities or countries or even Spanish words, even though the menu is not in Spanish, instead of just asking the server. I have, more than once, been wrong about a thing, in 150 to 300 spoken words, instead of just shutting the fuck up and saying, “I don’t know.” Sometimes I am very wrong, sometimes just kind of wrong, and the older I get, the more I try to stop doing this thing, Male Answering Syndrome.
Years after Ace introduced me to the term, I was still thinking about it. Last year I started trying to find the origin of the term. Male Answer Syndrome was most notably written about by a writer named Jane Campbell in 1991, in a brilliant piece in Details magazine, which no longer exists and has no online presence. (The term actually goes back even further than that, first appearing in an article by David Stansbury in a 1983 issue of Third Coast Magazine.) The only way I could get the verified text of Campbell’s essay was to buy a print copy of the January 1992 Utne Reader, which republished the article.
This was 17 years before Rebecca Solnit would invent the term mansplain in 2008, which traveled much more widely because of the internet.
I am not trying to mansplain Male Answer Syndrome to you. Campbell did it best back in 1991, when she concisely defined it as “the chronic answering of questions regardless of actual knowledge”:
“They try not to get bogged down by petty considerations such as ‘Do I know anything about this subject?’ or ‘Is what I have to say interesting?’ They take a broad view of questions, treating them less as requests for specific pieces of information than as invitations to expand on some theories, air a few prejudices, and tell a couple of jokes. Some men seem to regard life as a talk show on which they are the star guest.”
I’m a big fan of this term and a big fan of the essay that birthed it. But beyond Campbell’s masterful calling out of the buffoonery of men such as myself, what I really wanted to know was, why is it so fucking hard for men to just say “I don’t know”? And by men, I mean, historically, me.
I realized that at some point, probably in junior high or high school, I noticed that people found confidence attractive. Not just in a romantic sense, as in If I appear confident, I will get dates, but in a general sense, as in, People seem to generally enjoy interacting with other people who present as if they know what they are doing. Now, anyone who has ever been a teenager or known a teenager is aware that when you’re a teenager, you have no idea what the fuck you’re doing, even if you act like it.
A lot of people do this—act like they know what they’re doing. At some point, maybe you realize none of them know what the fuck they’re doing either; they’re just acting like they do. So you start doing that too, faking it until you make it. Maybe you even start believing it, and you find out it works quite often but doesn’t work as well when you’re mountain biking for the first time ever without any instruction, or standing on stage in front of a room of hundreds of people with a microphone in your hand, or trying to replace the faucet in your kitchen sink, because, I mean, how hard could it be?
In the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes about Dale Carnegie’s early-1900s rise to fame as a public-speaking icon, and how his success in part spread the idea of the Extrovert Ideal:
Carnegie’s journey reflected a cultural evolution that reached a tipping point around the turn of the twentieth century, changing forever who we are and whom we admire, how we act at job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children. America had shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality.
As the country’s ideal shifted, Cain wrote, we began to value gregariousness and charisma in adults. America started to value the person who could present well, even if someone else in the room had actual expertise or knowledge. We started to worry about quiet kids with solitary hobbies, instead urging them to be more social, because it would help them fare better as adults:
When these children grew older and applied to college and later for their first jobs, they faced the same standards of gregariousness. University admissions officers looked not for the most exceptional candidates, but for the most extroverted. Harvard’s provost Paul Buck declared in the late 1940s that Harvard should reject the “sensitive, neurotic” type and the “intellectually over-stimulated” in favor of boys of the “healthy extrovert kind.” In 1950, Yale’s president, Alfred Whitney Griswold, declared that the ideal Yalie was not a “beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual, but a well-rounded man.” Another dean told [William H.] Whyte that “in screening applications from secondary schools he felt it was only common sense to take into account not only what the college wanted, but what, four years later, corporations’ recruiters would want. ‘They like a pretty gregarious, active type,’ he said. ‘So we find that the best man is the one who’s had an 80 or 85 average in school and plenty of extracurricular activity. We see little use for the “brilliant” introvert.’”
The more I reflected on it, the more I realized I’d tried to be confident early in life and gradually learned to value humility more as I got older, having had the chance to get humbled by many, many things over the years. I started quizzing my friends about their experiences growing up, and lots of them said yes, they had exhibited signs of Male Answer Syndrome at some point or another. My friend Aaron said he thought it came down to unearned confidence versus earned confidence, the former being “Fake it till you make it” and the latter being “I’ve ridden thousands of miles on mountain bikes, and here are a few things I’ve learned through that experience.”
Or, as Debbi Millman defined it while interviewing psychologist Adam Grant on the Design Matters podcast in 2021, “Confidence is just the successful repetition of any endeavor.”
By Millman’s definition, unearned confidence, or fake-it-till-you-make-it confidence, really isn’t confidence at all. As Grant said earlier in their interview, maybe we should be teaching and learning humility over this sort of fabricated confidence:
“Intellectual humility is, for me, just knowing what you don’t know. Recognizing all the limitations in your understanding. And it’s actually not that hard to cultivate. It turns out that if you take high schoolers, for example, and you just introduce them to this idea that when you admit what you don’t know, you’re more able to learn, they become more comfortable doing it. Who would have thought? We live in a culture that stigmatizes not knowing. I think we’d be much better off stigmatizing certainty, and saying, ‘Look, it’s not your lack of knowledge that gets you in trouble—it’s your conviction in the very things you don’t know.’”
To your question, Internet Guy with an Opinion, aren’t women and nonbinary folks just as capable of having Male Answer Syndrome? I don’t want to speak for Jane Campbell, but again, that article came out in 1991. I would guess anyone can have it. However, I am only qualified to make fun of myself, and I identify as a male with Male Answer Syndrome. But yeah, I mean, *gestures broadly at Twitter*.
I wouldn’t pretend to define what a “real man” is, or argue that if a certain percentage of men do something, all men do it. All I can say is that any “real” man knows that there’s only one characteristic all men exhibit, and that is that when an employee in a retail store asks, “Are you finding everything all right?” you say, “Yes,” even if you’ve never been in the store before or you’ve been trying to find something for 30 minutes and have passed that same employee in the same aisle three different times while wandering around searching for whatever it is you’re looking for and it is glaringly obvious that you are not finding everything all right, or you are on death’s doorstep after days of wandering around an Ikea trying to locate the exit. You will die in that Ikea, when you could have just admitted that you didn’t know something, instead of acting like you had all the answers. Tombstone: “Here Lies Brendan—He Refused to Ask for Directions, or Even Read the Directions That Came with the Product.”
The shitty thing about pretending like you know everything is that it blunts your curiosity—and wouldn’t a life of endless curiosity be so much better than a life of thinking you know everything there is to know?
As it turns out, Tolstoy did use a typewriter, sort of. He was born in 1828 and died in 1910. Commercial production of typewriters began in 1873, after Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, invented it in the late 1860s. This was particularly helpful for Tolstoy’s wife, Sonya, who, in addition to bearing Tolstoy’s 13 children, acted as his business manager and secretary, copying the text of War and Peace eight times by hand, pre-typewriter. Tolstoy did not prefer to personally use a typewriter but appeared in an ad for the Remington typewriter company in 1909, pictured dictating to his daughter Alexandra Lvowna.
I looked all of this up later. Which was very educational, because when asked, I actually didn’t know. Which is something I’m trying to work on admitting.
Brendan Leonard’s new book, Have Fun Out There or Not: The Semi-Rad Running Essays, is available now.