“I dunno”

I used to say “I dunno” a lot as a kid. It was my placeholder. Depending on the situation, it usually meant one of two things: “I genuinely don’t know the answer to that question,” or “I do know the answer, but I don’t know how to phrase it.”

I got into the habit of “I dunno” to questions because other people – adults especially – wouldn’t give me time to construct my thoughts. They figured that if I could blast out entire monologs about weather, I should be able to answer any question instantaneously and intelligibly.

The issue was, for me then and now, it’s a situation of “Fast, coherent, and full – pick any two.” I can answer quickly and coherently if you want an incomplete answer. I can answer quickly and fully if you don’t mind what I’m saying coming out so garbled you can’t make heads or tails of it. But if you want a coherent, full answer to your question, be prepared to wait a while so that I can sculpt the words into what they need to be.

Adults didn’t get this, and they’d get angry if I took too long to answer. So I started saying, “I dunno.” This would also frustrate my parents, especially if it was a preference question or a question I definitely did know the answer to. “What do you mean you don’t know?” or “Yes, you do!”

It would frustrate me, too, because a lot of the time, my parents would take it at face value and then work of the assumption that I didn’t know. “I know that.” “You just said you didn’t!”

One of my teachers growing up had it figured out, though. She’d hear me say, “I dunno” and wait a beat or two. If I moved the conversation on, she knew I genuinely didn’t know, and if I answered fully a few seconds later, she knew I just needed time to process. It worked really well.

So, I’d say, if you’re dealing with a kid whose default answer seems to be “I dunno,” try giving the kid a bit of time to sort out their thoughts before you move on. You might be surprised by how they answer.

4 thoughts on ““I dunno”

  1. โ€œFast, coherent, and full โ€“ pick any two.โ€ I think I need this embroidered on a pillow. ๐Ÿ™‚

    My fallback was “pardon?”, which really didn’t work very well. Delayed processing means there’s sometimes a second or two (or, um, several) between when I hear something and when my brain unscrambles it into words. But because I didn’t know delayed processing was a thing until years later, I’d assume I just hadn’t heard properly, so I’d say “pardon?”. Then they’d repeat themselves, maybe using different words, and while they were talking the original question would finally assemble itself in my head. But by then my brain would be trying to figure out the second thing they’d said, so it’d get even more confusing. Wish I’d have thought of just saying “I dunno”. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • ischemgeek says:

      Yeah. As an adult, I’ve hit on, “Uh, let me think.” Which usually works. If people are patient.

      But I think the same is true of anyone: most people I know don’t do well with the first thing they blurt out. xD

  2. I was the same way. i hated it when people asked me “why did you do this or that?” because i couldnt think fast enough to answer, and didnt know how to express myself, and i didnt always know why i did things because of alexithymia.
    i was so frustrated at my inability to answer questions, and to defend myself in an argument or when being accused of something. i knew i was right, but i couldnt find words!

    • ischemgeek says:

      Yeah, same. My ability to be articulate with spoken word is inversely proportional to my level of emotion, to boot, so the more I’d hesitate, the more frustrated they’d get, the more they’d pressure, the more I’d be unable to find words, etc.

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