Let’s talk about stupid questions. Every profession has tricks or jargon that everyone assumes everyone else knows. This goes double for a specialty field like drilling. But, if you missed it — or weren’t ready to hear it — during training, specialty knowledge veers quickly into “too embarrassed to ask” territory.
Think about situations where you see part of a job demonstrated for you. You nod along, focused on the task’s big picture. A specific, but small step gets missed or glossed over. You think you have it, though. What happens when you tackle the task yourself? You run into trouble, but plenty of people just klutz their way through because they don’t want to ask a stupid question.
No One Wants to Ask a Stupid Question
Picture a pica. What the heck is a pica? I’m glad you asked. It’s a small example of a stupid question in the field of journalism — at least for journalists of a certain age. It’s a unit of type size equivalent to about one-sixth of an inch.
I entered this field when a few publishers still produced newspapers through a process called paste-up. This came before desktop publishing. Newspaper compositors (or “paste-ups”) would puzzle together pages from individual bits of text and photos, pasting them on a large board that was then photographed and made into a press plate.
That puzzling together had exacting specifications. Designers used a tool called a pica pole and, for photos, a device called a proportion wheel to make sure every story could convert from words and pictures to a printed page in tomorrow’s newspaper.
Technology started displacing the paste-up process in the 1990s. I had heard the term “pica” before entering the field in the mid-’90s, but didn’t bother learning about it because I knew I’d never work in that archaic system. Until I did. It took me months to gather up the courage to ask someone what a pica was, because I didn’t want to look stupid asking and everyone assumed I already knew.
The Best Stupid Questions Go Unasked
Employers have an expectation that new helpers know a thing or two, but sometimes that knowledge has important holes. When it comes to filling those gaps, though, employers have a responsibility to head off stupid questions (just as employees have to not be afraid to ask). After all, the best stupid question is one that never needs asking. I suggest a few tactics for patching knowledge gaps before they grow into something an employee hesitates to ask about.
- Fuller, more comprehensive training. Don’t assume anything, go slowly and regularly ask if the trainee has a good grasp of a topic before moving on.
- Stupid question hour. Set up a periodic “ask me anything”-style time. Normalize the question-asking process, making it as simple and judgment free as possible. Often, people won’t ask a question until the opportunity to ask has come up two, three or four times. Making questions a regular part of doing business lowers the stakes for the introverts among us.
- Write up an FAQ. Spend a little time thinking about what basic questions a new hire or a trainee for a new position might have. Write out those questions, along with solid answers. Post the document publicly or pass it out to those starting a new role.
Drilling, like journalism, is a niche. It can take years to internalize all the bits of knowledge that make up a niche field. But new members of the niche benefit if old-timers like us take a minute to share what we know, if only to make sure the new recruits can keep up. These tactics can help.
What do you think? Do you have an embarrassing story about some aspect of the job you were afraid to ask about? How did you handle it? How do you shape your company’s training to head off stupid questions? Tell us about it. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay safe out there, drillers.