91

I purposely made this question generally broad so that it can apply to more people in need of similar interpersonal skills, but I can easily make it about a specific scenario if needed.

Problem

My whole life, people have put me on a "genius" pedestal, and while it was a fun ego-booster when I was a kid, today it's more of a curse than a blessing. I don't see myself as a genius, but others do. The problem with that, as you might imagine, is that they'll assume I have solutions and answers to a lot of their problems, even if I'm completely ignorant/indifferent to the subject. What makes matters worse is that often it's about something related to some subject I'm known to understand well. So when I try to address that I don't know about the matter, people sometimes become infuriated/frustrated as though I "don't want to help" or am doing it "grudgingly". What they don't seem to understand is that I do want to help, I just don't know how. I try to help when I know, and when I don't, but it's within my reach, I do look up how to help, but they see it as me "not wanting to share the knowledge that I have". This usually happens in my family, but sometimes friends also have high expectations from me. Most of the time, the same people make such accusations multiple times, in spite of me telling them about my lack of knowledge for the Nth time.

One example where this happens: I'm a full-time programmer, and also work on all sorts of computer-related projects in my spare time. However, I don't know a thing about hardware stats/brands, or how to do stuff on Facebook (I don't have a Facebook profile). Yet, people often respond with "how come you can do X, Y and Z on a computer but not know how to pick a piece of hardware?" or "you know how to X but you don't know how to Y on Facebook? At least admit you don't want to help!". Keep in mind that it's not that I don't want to help them - be it a tech-related issue or otherwise. It's just that I cannot help them because I'm not informed enough on the subject. People asking me for help don't bother me - when I do know, I help however I can.

Another example (since the IT example got more attention than I actually intended): someone asks me about some math-related problem, or about a word, expression or sentence in English I've never seen before. If at any point I state that I don't know how to solve it or what it means, I'm met with accusations such as "of course you know, you studied English for N years" or "you're super smart, of course you can solve this simple problem". The fact that I might know something relatively more complex makes it even hard to defend my case, because if I can solve this complex equation, then surely I can calculate this simple interest formula. I do look up solutions, but even still it's frowned upon, as if I were "pretending not to know" and "excusing myself by grudgingly searching it". The mentality is flawed on many levels and I fail to comprehend how one comes up with such notions, but that is already beyond the scope of this question.


Question

How can I respond or act when accused of knowing something I don't, when admitting ignorance is not enough? Ideally, I'd like to be able to assert to people that I am in fact ignorant on some subjects. If that proves to be too difficult, then minimizing conflicts against people's expectations would be my desired outcome.


What I have tried

  • Stating I don't know about the subject because I never looked into it: doesn't work most of the time, will just get dismissed as me being "unwilling to help";
  • Stating that, while I don't know about it, I can look into it/see what I can do: often will just result in an angry "if you're going to grudgingly do it then don't even bother", which I don't know how to respond with, since I'm clearly showing willingness to help regardless of my knowledge of the subject;
  • Pretending I know about the subject: doesn't work, backfires easily, and I don't like lying;
  • Arguing with the person, trying to convince them I don't know everything: doesn't work with some people, apparently I'm too smart not to know everything there is to know in this entire universe or something;
  • Ignoring the person accusing you of withholding knowledge: works most of the time, but is just as stressful as arguing.

A lot of people understand I might not know something, but still, some individuals (a couple of them easily come to mind) still cannot fathom how I might be ignorant about something I "obviously" should know about. I tried sarcasm, long and in-depth explanations, rudeness, or just outright playing deaf, but the problem keeps reoccurring.

I'm adding a cultural background tag, but any approach is welcome at this point.


EDIT: There seems to be an ongoing theme in comments and answers advising me on how to avoid helping people, or how to have people help themselves, or how to ignore them. These would make (or have made) great questions, but it's not related to my issue: addressing people about a misconception they have about me, in that "if I know A then I must know B" when, in many cases, that is not true at all.

  • 12
    I feel like this has already been covered in these two questions. interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/3981/… interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/9042/… – Jesse Mar 5 '18 at 12:50
  • 1
    I disagree. Those questions seem to address that the questioners don't believe it's up to them, or don't want to help - they seem to have the knowledge about the subject. In my case, I do want to help, I just don't have the required knowledge. People misinterpret my ignorance as unwillingness to help, and that is the issue at hand. The programmer/tech support bit was just an example to demonstrate how they hold on to their abstractions and overlook my genuine ignorance. – HugoBDesigner Mar 5 '18 at 12:53
  • 4
    The point of this question is not the "ask for help" bit. It's the "letting people know I don't know things". I don't mind being people's tech support, so long as they understand that when I say "I don't know how to do that", they believe me. It's a problem that goes beyond tech-related requests, though it is very predominant in this field. Perhaps there is a clearer way of putting that in the question that I'm not seeing? – HugoBDesigner Mar 5 '18 at 13:16
  • I gave an answer on a related (but not duplicate) question, maybe it helps: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/9042/… – Pieter B Mar 6 '18 at 10:38
  • 9
    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Arwen Undómiel Mar 7 '18 at 8:51

17 Answers 17

84

For those of us who work in IT, this is a pretty common curse. I know mainframe operators who get asked to look at PCs, I see IT security guys who get asked about databases, and I know of Desktop Support folks who get asked all kinds of web programming questions.

Keep in mind the knowledge level of those folks asking you - they know next to nothing, so in their eyes you must know the answer since you obviously know more than they do.

I'd submit that if people get really stubborn about your helping them after you say "no", then you're not the one with the IPS problem - it's them.

Your first answer is the one I usually go to. "Sorry, that's not my field of expertise." I may get asked "but don't you work with computers?", to which I say "I use one on a daily basis, but I'm not involved in doing that. I do something completely different."

Now, if people want to accuse you of being unhelpful, I'd suggest turning that on its head. "You're right; I don't want to help. I don't want to take on supporting home computers." Lay it out there, own it, and don't let yourself be forced into the position of defending yourself. Some "friends" or family may try to guilt you into doing this, but sticking to your guns and refusing the guilt will, in the long run, help you.

  • 53
    "I use one on a daily basis, but I'm not involved in doing that" -> could try to make an analogy there - could a chef repair an oven, does everyone know what the best kind of microwave to buy is – Stephen S Mar 5 '18 at 16:58
  • 21
    For repeat "customers": (Them) "Don't you work with computers?" (You) "Don't you use a computer every day from 9-5?" – Feathercrown Mar 5 '18 at 17:32
  • 2
    @cronax: it works really well for me. That, and "I don't work on people's home computers. It's not that you can't offer enough money, it's that there just plain isn't enough money to get me to do that. The US government can borrow and print all they want and it still wouldn't be enough." – baldPrussian Mar 5 '18 at 18:00
  • 3
    My only caveat to this would be to be careful about how to present this in a professional environment - yes, you do run into this in a professional environment, especially if you work as customer service, and are expected to be able to solve all computer-related problems imaginable. Adjust your politeness level for the amount of courtesy the individual deserves. – Zibbobz Mar 5 '18 at 19:13
  • 6
    @Feathercrown: Hah, nice. I've never thought of that. "Don't you work with computers?" "Yeah, don't you?" Done :D – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 6 '18 at 17:02
52

Sometimes I have the same problem. I am a biologist. People happen to ask me all sort of things about health (but I've never worked on humans) or their plants (but I'm a zoologist). Lots of times I have no clue about the death of their geranium. So I came up with this solution: when people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I study a specific aspect of clams. I never mention being a biologist, even if it's implicit. This sends the message that biology is a huge field. They won't refrain from asking me about that weird behaviour of their goldfish, but they won't expect a full answer.

At the beginning of our interaction, my friends (and the people that ask you for technical support) place themselves at the stage of "unconscious incompetence" in the four stages of knowledge.

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. [...] The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage.

They just do not know that being an expert in computers as a whole is not a common thing - not even in IT environments. They probably equate it to being expert in washing machines or toasters or whatever appliance. To get out of this incomprehension and step to the following stage, which is "conscious incompetence", they have to realize what you do for a living. So bargain some explanatory time before starting helping them:

Alright, I'll try and help you. First of all, however, I need you to listen to me for two minutes, okay?

Then you can explain to them in simple words which "computer part" your work is about, using comparisons you know they will understand. You can choose to make it a bit lengthier, to get them the feeling of the complexity of the subject, but don't be condescending, as it would backfire:

So, this is your PC. It is composed of the "body", which is the hardware, and the "soul", which is the software. I work with softwares. Some people deal with the body, some with the soul. You wouldn't go to a dermatologist to get psychotherapy, right?

(Well, this is just a crummy example, I'm sure you will come up with a better one...)

Now state that you're not the one they're looking for, but that you'll be glad to help to the extent you can:

In your case, you would need a "dermatologist", while I'm a "psychologist". What I can do is look for a solution with you. Did you try googling {X}?

This approach takes time, but if the people asking for help are always the same, it could be worth it. A shorter version of it is referring directly to their work for comparison ("I can't help much. Could you help me if I asked you for {Y - somehow related to their work but not really}?").


As for the couple of people who insist that you "obviously should know" about their problem... then the problem lies in them, not in you. Besides not understanding your work (inconscious incompetence here as well), they are not willing to simply believe you. A paradigm shift is needed here: ask them why are they doubting of your good will and then why do they keep coming to you asking for help if they're persuaded that you just don't want to help them. Challenge them into asking which would be the reasons for you to lie.

If it helps, if they come up with a problem (not necessarily IT-related) and you don't feel like helping them, be honest and simply tell them that. You will be able to refer to that situation and your answer when they will call you out again.

  • 12
    +1 for Did you try googling {X}?. I'm guessing that OP, like most computer professionals, probably knows how to google an issue better than the people asking, even if OP doesn't know much about the topic. This is my go to...I don't really know much about this, but if I was trying to figure it out I would google {x} – popctrl Mar 5 '18 at 18:20
  • 8
    @popctrl you mean xkcd.com/627 ? – Baldrickk Mar 6 '18 at 11:11
  • 1
    The newly-added approach is really neat, I'll try it next time! Probably sounds silly that I never did it, I just never considered asking them why they doubt my good will. I've asked why they doubt I don't know something or why they doubt I'm willing to help, but never asked why they doubt my good will. – HugoBDesigner Mar 6 '18 at 11:58
  • 1
    @Andrew thanks for the input! I'll edit accordingly. – LinuxBlanket Mar 6 '18 at 15:48
  • 2
    @ElmoVanKielmo that's exactly my point :) people will ask me "Since you are a biologist, how come palm trees do this and that?" - but I'm no expert in botany, since I'm a zoologist. – LinuxBlanket Mar 6 '18 at 15:51
28

Having read all the solutions you have admittedly tried and failed at, and recognizing that it's an exhaustive list any normal person could come up with, it occurred to me that it's possible that the actual problem is not really "in" your question. And while the problem you are describing is rather famous and had happened to many people (especially in IT), it seems to me that the real issue however is still "behind the scenes".

And while people around you are willing to believe that you "know everything" to their own benefit (which is: you solving their problems), they don't really respect you as an individual. Sadly but true, good and selfless people are often taken advantage of, which is somewhat confirmed by you admitting to always wanting to help. So the harsh truth is that people have been using you to solve their problems and all their accusations and indignations are only aimed at getting what they want, regardless of how it makes you feel and whether they themselves realize it or not.

The wrong thing to take from all this would be "I need to make people respect me". You cannot control what people think or how they feel about you. That is exactly how you've got yourself into this problem in the first place: by trying to "minimize conflicts against people's expectations" and worrying that you might be perceived as "unwilling to help".

The actual thing to do here is to learn to respect yourself. Respect your own knowledge, opinion, time and effort required to help others. And as hard as it may be to the selfless person, you need to realize that you are not really obligated to help anyone regardless of your ability to do it.

And while all this might be a bit harsh and not so easy to achieve, if you once again find yourself being accused of "unwillingness to help", ask the person who's doing the accusing whether they actually respect you and your opinion, and if so how come they are calling you a liar. And while this definitely not going to help you to avert conflict, remember that trying to avert conflict and being afraid to offend someone is most likely how you've gotten yourself in your current predicament.

  • 3
    Of all the answers, this one seems to get the problem the best. That's not to say the other answers are less worthy or bad in any way, I've been gathering some great insight from most of them, but this one shows that it goes beyond IT knowledge. So thanks for the answer! – HugoBDesigner Mar 5 '18 at 19:42
  • Winner: **if you once again find yourself being accused of "unwillingness to help", ask the person who's doing the accusing whether they actually respect you and your opinion, and if so how come they are calling you a liar. ** – Bista Mar 6 '18 at 5:33
  • I agree: best answer I've read so far. This is a matter of appearance also, however, which the OP can change. – Andrew Mar 6 '18 at 16:22
  • I would take this answer one step further: when repeat offenders of this, who continually refuse to accept that there are things you know nothing about, persist in accusing you of lying or being purposely unwilling to help, sometimes the best thing you can do is to cut them out of your life entirely. Respecting someone and acting this way towards someone are mutually exclusive concepts—they clearly don’t respect you, and (in general) you don’t owe them anything, including your company or friendship. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 6 '18 at 20:44
  • 1
    I think you just answered 50% of questions on here with this answer and tons of questions I didn't even know I had. – Belle Mar 7 '18 at 9:59
15

My usual tactic is to simply state my ignorance, then ask them to teach me:

I've never looked closely at that, so I don't know what to do. What have you already found out/done/researched?

By asking them simple questions (and following them up with other simple/ignorant questions) 1) you learn something, 2) by acting interested you display that you aren't just blowing them off, but are actually uninformed, and 3) you may help them solve their own problem.

From there, rather than trying to solve it for them, I'll provide what little information or experience I have, if any, and then apply generic problem solving skills. Ask them what they're trying to achieve, what's important (cost/quality/speed), etc. This is a discussion you can have using your problem solving skills without having experience in the field they're asking about.

Then consider advising them for additional routes they may have overlooked.

Is there a business that does this? A user group or networking event that might have some insight? Have you looked at online resources?

In this way

  • you can help them without providing the answer, which you don't have, for them.
  • you clearly demonstrate your knowledge and its limits.
  • you provide them with all the information/experience you actually do have.
  • your thoughts on matters you have no experience in are actually valuable to others.

I think the last point bears repeating. I've found that myself and many others are approached not just for what they know, but for their skills at analysis and synthesis. The ability to comprehend a new subject, integrate it with existing knowledge, and providing new paths and opportunities for exploration (ie, the oft maligned word "synergy") gives people who are blocked paths forward even if you don't provide an answer.

Rather than treating it as them requiring you to know something you don't know, treat it as an opportunity for you to 1) learn and 2) help them use your problem solving skills. Pretend you actually needed to solve the problem they're solving - what would you do next? Give them a path forward, not a solution.

Phrases you might hear from me when I don't know something:

  • I don't know.
  • That seems like a hard problem.
  • Have you talked to [name]? They might know someone who knows about this.
  • I haven't had to deal with that, but it sounds similar to [subject] - can you tell me the differences?
  • I'll see what I can find out. (then immediately do a google search, and email them the most relevant results - no more than 5-15 minutes of work at most)
9

It sounds like they're being mentally lazy. They understand that you haven't used Facebook before, but they want you to investigate their problem, figure out a solution, and implement it. If that means you have to learn all about Facebook from scratch, then so be it. If you put in that level of effort, then they figure you can fix the problem. And they're probably right.

They feel entitled to get that level of help from you for nothing, which is why they get mad when you refuse with claims of ignorance. But they don't want to come out and say "learn all about my stuff so you can fix it", because that makes them look selfish and demanding.

This is why insisting that you don't know how to fix their problem doesn't work. They believe you, but want you to try anyway, teaching yourself how in the process.

My response would be: "I am not your lackey. My free time is worth something too. I don't mind helping you when it's something I know how to do, but I'm not going to learn all about your problem for you."

I expect a response like "But you could do it so easily" or "You're so much better at this than me." Especially if they're used to getting help from you on subjects you do know about.

Good reply: "OK, but you have to buy me a pizza and mow my lawn." They don't appreciate you very much if they're not even willing to do that. Maybe they'll even think that figuring it out themselves would be easier than mowing a lawn...

And if you really have had enough, try: "I hate to hear a grown man beg", biting off each word while staring at their eyes. I have never had a conversation proceed past that point.

  • Great answer. I refer them to the local computer store and mention that it's only $90/hour, if they know anything they know that I won't do it for less. Still stubborn then they'll want to speak to my lawyer, they had better know that it's a $15K minimum for four hours. Failing that they're going to need brain surgery before we can proceed further, they know that's OK or they might be talking to the lawyer in any event. -- Worst is when they're stupid and forgetful and approach you repeatedly for the same issue. -- How did they live before they met me, go away, never come back! – Rob Mar 6 '18 at 16:05
  • I truly believe most conversations to be over after the 'beg' line. Would be interesting to know all the conversations that start behind ones back after that. – Haunt_House Mar 8 '18 at 15:53
  • A response worded like "I am not your lackey" displayed the kind of superior attitude that the OP's family and friends already thinks he has. – Shawn V. Wilson Mar 9 '18 at 0:15
  • Superior attitude? No. Standing for himself. – jo1storm Mar 11 '18 at 6:13
6

One thing that may help is to to put these iterations in a different perspective. You're assuming that phrases like

"how come you can do X, Y and Z on a computer but not know how to pick a piece of hardware?"

or

"you know how to X but you don't know how to Y on Facebook? At least admit you don't want to help!"

are legitimate questions about your competency set. They may not necessarily be: the interloper may be attempting to coax you into helping them despite your initial rebuttal.

The fact that you are gifted in some aspects may be completely irrelevant in this scenario - or perhaps it is relevant, but jut not in the way you would expect: it may be used as leverage against your initial reluctance.

A valid comeback, in this case, is to both admit ignorance and willingness to learn/help:

"I have no idea how to do this on Facebook - I don't even have an account. But sure, I can [look together / google about / search on StackOverflow] with you and learn. Have a couple minutes?"

5

You mentioned that you've tried sarcasm. I know from experience that that tends not to go over well. Have you tried humor? Example:

There's a joke about this. How many software engineers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? [Pause to let the person think about it.] Can't be done -- that's a hardware problem!

Or:

I'm not a real computer technician, although I play one on TV. [Based on a television ad in the US from about 40 years ago, when a soap opera star started his pitch with, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV."]

I'm not at all sure these would work in the Brazilian cultural context, but hopefully you could find something that would work there.

  • 8
    What about a different TV reference... "Damn it Jim, I'm a programmer not a database analyst!" – JoelFan Mar 5 '18 at 18:14
  • Careful with humor. If someone believes you choose to not help them, they might regard it as mocking. – Haunt_House Mar 8 '18 at 15:49
5

What I like to do to explain this is to make analogies. For example, a mechanic knows about cars and engines, but you can't ask him to design a new car, to repair a Formula 1 car or to fix a nuclear engine. It's the same domain, yet the tasks are drastically different.

Without diving into the technicalities of IT, people usually understand the picture and remain kind of speechless or without any valid argument. This usually works unless the person is as stubborn as a mule.

  • 2
    This is the answer I've had the most success with: better used if you can relate it to their specific profession. e.g. if they are a office worker (to take a common profession), ask if they can build a photocopier - its all office equipment, isnt it? – David Mar 7 '18 at 8:34
  • Exactly, the more the analogy is familiar to your interlocutor, the more effective it is. Good point. – Hawker65 Mar 7 '18 at 12:18
  • The problem is the analogy is often Do you think a Car designer could repair one? Which they usually respond with, Yes, Duh! ... Yes one could probably struggle through it, but it's not going to be enjoyable for anyone or be professional support. – Ryan The Leach Mar 9 '18 at 4:44
  • The designer knows how to repair it on a higher level, he knows what the main steps are but he doesn't know how to realize the said steps. If you want him to repair the car, he has to master these steps on a lower level which would make him a mechanic. Just like an architect knows the steps of building a tower, he is unable to actually build one because he is not a construction worker. – Hawker65 Mar 12 '18 at 12:15
4

As someone who have dealt with similar issues (mainly from family members) and who also from Brasil, let me add a different perspective to your problem:

How can I respond or act when faced with such accusations when admitting ignorance is not enough?

Considering you went through all the basic, common-sense steps to state your ignorance in the specific issue, and even offered to help look for an answer, the way to deal with might actually be just admitting that you can't please everyone and leave them be.

I have always had a large set of abilities and therefore was always required to help family members with different things. In my case specifically, the more I gave the more they wanted -- and at some point I was drowning in tasks to fulfil everyone's necessities. I had to set boundaries and it was a long and hard process for people to disassociate me as the first idea that came to mind to fix their needs.

The key thing here was to understand that external validation was important to me and for that very reason it was keeping me hostage of the situation.

Finally, regarding this:

will just get dismissed as me being "unwilling to help"

You could ask yourself if the person has any other reason to doubt you're willing to help. Maybe there was some misunderstanding earlier that might lead them to think that. If that's the case, you might try to address the issue at some point to clear things up and see if the behaviour changes.

4
  1. Tell the truth:

    Sorry, I wish I knew, but I don't specialize in that.

  2. Pass the baton, or buck:

    Sorry, ask Jones, he knows about hardware.

    ...or if there is no Jones:

    Sorry, I'm useless with hardware, and my friends aren't hardware experts either.

    ...or perhaps:

    Sorry, I'm useless with hardware, Jones is great, but we just don't get along...

  3. Be insulted, (as JoelFan suggested), in the Dr. McCoy style:

    I'm an Intercal programmer, not an electronics technician!

    or, compare it to spoken languages:

    Sorry, I don't know, for me this is just like touring America and meeting a nice lady who's surprised I don't speak Spanish.

3

tl;dr- If someone thinks that being smart means that you know everything, then simply directly addressing that misconception can be a long-term solution.


Tell them that you're stupid and that there's a ton of stuff you don't know. And if they object, accusing you of being a genius, that's a charge you can accept to whatever extent it might be true; there's no contradiction in being a genius and being stupid.

If that strikes them as unintuitive, then it can help to talk about the limits of human intelligence. No genius who has ever lived knows everything; the very brightest humans are still quite limited. Even humanity, collectively, is quite ignorant to a lot of basic stuff ("Physics Confession", xkcd).

For a sad example, we'd have a lot better remedies for cancer right now if we weren't so freakin' stupid. Lots of good, innocent people are dying horribly because us humans are so stupid. And there're probably some simple-enough solutions in a lot of cases; we just don't know them yet, despite our continuing best efforts.

That said, if you're a genuine smartie pants and don't know how to answer their literal question, then the next best thing you can give 'em is guidance. Advise them on next steps; perhaps you know someone else that they might ask, or simply how they might go about finding the information. Even if it's obvious to you, sometimes even simple things like crafting a good Google query isn't something everyone's good at.

In short:

  • If they assume being-smart==knowing-everything, discuss that misconception with 'em 'til they're tired of hearing about it.

  • Try to point them in the right direction if they're unsure how to do it themself.

  • Ignorant doesn't equal stupid. That is in fact the heart of the OPs problem, people are equating smart with knowledge. – jmoreno Mar 11 '18 at 12:02
2

I think a very similar question was already answered elsewhere on this site but I can't find it.

Anyways, this problem crops of very often with many different topics for me. My usual solution is:

  1. Try to see if I really don't know anything. Often I have a hunch or idea that I'll communicate. When there is nothing to tell, I will say that
    • this is not my area of knowledge

    • I haven't done this before

    • I am not experienced enough to answer/do this

  2. Assuming you declined in step one, they are likely frustrated, which seems to be the core problem in your question. Therefore, you should offer them some other "solution" to not let them down entirely. Tell them how you would proceed if you were in their place:
    • try to search (for X) on Google

    • ask Betty, shes good at that stuff

    • just buy a new one, they are cheap these days ;)

Somehow this strategy has allowed me to retain my nimbus while still allowing for actually answering "I don't know". I think the fact that I often can offer a hunch softens the blow when I am of no help at all. People will sense if you are honestly trying.

2

If you are a successful professional programmer, then you have some useful generic skills. You are good at systematic problem solving, and you are good at discovering the information needed to enable problem solving. These skills are far more transferable that you seem to imagine. People who really struggle with the basics of using a computer usually do so, in my experience, because they lack these generic skills.

So don't pretend that you can't help people. If you choose to, you can. They may of course lose confidence in you when they realise that you don't already know the answer and will have to work it out, but the fact is that given sufficient patience on both sides, you will solve the problem quicker than they will.

That said, it may well be that fixing someone's email connection isn't how you want to spend your spare time. If so, you should be able to explain that to them.

  • 5
    "You are good at systematic problem solving, and you are good at discovering the information needed to enable problem solving." In other words, xkcd.com/627. – JAB Mar 5 '18 at 23:46
  • 1
    This doesn't address the question. It could be argued that almost any problem could be fixed by anyone with enough time, especially with the advent of the internet. While I am very much an advocate of helping people, just because you can fix it faster doesn't mean you should: not doing so can teach self-reliance and force them to build their own skill set, which includes those generic skills. – David Mar 7 '18 at 8:31
1

I know what you're talking about:

How can I explain to people that a programmer isn't a computer technician?

It can be really stressful, especially if it happens with your family.

Sometimes my parents ask for my help, on every random thing that is a part of the technology ecosystem, and when I tell them that I don't know anything about it, they look at me like satan and accuse me that I just don't want to help them.

By your side, you can't do anything about it.

If someone think that you can do something, even you don't, they will be sure about it, so if you don't help them, you are just a bad person from their point of view.

Usually I try to explain that I work with different things and I can't help, and I think that there isn't anything more to do, it's up to them to be smart and understand your feels.

1

I try to explain that IT is a vast field, using the analogy with medicine.

You would not ask a dentist to prescribe you something for blood pressure, or ophthalmologist to deliver a baby. Yes, all of them studied (some kind of) medicine, and work in a hospital, but have different skillsets.

IT also has many specializations: DB expert, web designers, Linux admin, desktop support, security, hardware design etc, which for outsiders might all looks same ("works in a hospital in a white lab-coat"), but are fundamentally different.

  • Welcome to IPS! Could you specify what this answer adds to the other ones? – LinuxBlanket Mar 6 '18 at 14:30
  • @LinuxBlanket - Using analogy with medicine makes it easier to explain the difference, because people are aware about medical specializations, and that the skills in one area are not applicable in other areas of medicine. Specialization areas in IT is less obvious for non-IT people. – Peter M. Mar 6 '18 at 14:36
  • Yes, but analogies were suggested in this answer and this other one. What element of substantial novelty does your answer add to these two? – LinuxBlanket Mar 6 '18 at 14:52
  • "biologist" is too long to read, diverting into "unconscious incompetence" before using good analogy. And medicine is (IMHO) better example than cars. – Peter M. Mar 6 '18 at 14:58
  • @LinuxBlanket - I just have noticed that the "biologist" answer is yours. Honestly, I stopped reading before you got to your you would need a "dermatologist", while I'm a "psychologist" analogy. While your point about "unconscious incompetence" is perfectly valid, interesting, and good info, I would recommend to start with the analogy, and then explain how the concept of "unconscious incompetence" explains it. – Peter M. Mar 6 '18 at 16:57
0

Are you being willfully ignorant?

This problem goes both ways, but the IT problems of the people who don't understand the difference between software and hardware are normally trivial to solve. You could help if you chose to, just by your greater understanding of everything related to computers. It usually something in the user interface that they don't understand but you would just by taking a look. (Though in this situation I usually have to ask how to use an Apple one button mouse).

Are they asking just to have something to talk about with you?

Have you tried just having a chat about it, showing some sympathy for the problems they're having even if you can't help solve them. It's not always nice to be talking shop in a social situation with someone who doesn't actually understand what you do, but it gives them a subject they can talk to you about.


Ignorance is not enough because it seems from reading your question you don't actually want to help, nor do you wish to talk to these people about the problem. What you're apparently really asking is how to stop these people trying to talk shop with you, how to actually show total disinterest in their difficulties. You say you've tried helping but they're picking up something in your attitude, whether tone of voice or wording that says you really don't want to help.

People will always ask you, not because they wrongly think you know everything, but because they rightly think you know a lot more about computers than them.

  • Keep in mind that it's not that I don't want to help them - be it a tech-related issue or otherwise. It's just that I cannot help them because I'm not informed enough on the subject. People asking me for help don't bother me - when I do know, I help however I can. From the question itself – HugoBDesigner Mar 9 '18 at 16:05
  • Stating that, while I don't know about it, I can look into it/see what I can do: often will just result in an angry "if you're going to grudgingly do it then don't even bother", which I don't know how to respond with, since I'm clearly showing willingness to help regardless of my knowledge of the subject; On "What I've tried" – HugoBDesigner Mar 9 '18 at 16:07
  • Your focus isn't as narrow as you think, but people can tell from words or tone of voice when you're not entirely willing. Try reversing the sentence, say you'll take a look but it's not really your thing. – Separatrix Mar 9 '18 at 17:01
0

Simple. They get angry at you, you get angry at them.

You say: "I don't know. I can't help you with that."

They say: "You know, you just don't want to help me." (which is accusing you of lying, a big no no in interpersonal relations)

You say (sounding offended, which you should be at this point): 'F you (or local equivalent, if with good friends who won't get offended), I don't know! Nobody knows everything, congratulations, you found a thing I don't know anything about. Is that so hard to believe I don't know something? I know about that thing the same amount as you. We can learn together about it, but I can't help you otherwise."

(if they choose to continue)

They say: But you could solve/learn it so much easier than me!

You say: I believe in you.. Don't sell yourself short! You're awesome at *something they're good at and you suck in*. You learned it yourself, this isn't much harder.

protected by John Mar 6 '18 at 15:23

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.