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Throughout both my academic and professional career I've encountered situations where in such roles (as most of us would have), where as a happy go lucky graduate who doesn't know it all (but thought I did) would attend meetings and I wouldn't know what certain industry terminology meant or understood certain aspects of the project cycle.

I would become really pedantic about asking stupid questions that should be (what I felt) well known. But, I wouldn't ask them in the meeting (especially in a group setting) purposely to not look stupid.

To overcome this I would do two things:

  • I would always go home (after the day is done) and look up the terminology/subject matter and teach myself that way, so if the topic comes up again I'd be armed with the newly obtained knowledge.
  • I would wait until my superior came up to me and if they mentioned it, I would have a look of confusion on my face and then ask the question. (But this to me, seemed like I wasn't listening in the meeting and/or unprofessional).

Which made me contemplate the best time to ask these questions to make myself seem less like I wasn't paying attention but more because I'm willing to learn.


So, when is it okay to ask "stupid" questions in the workplace?

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In your shoes, besides thinking about "when" to ask, I would think about who to ask.

Your instinct of waiting until you are "offline" to ask is a good one. Unless you absolutely "need to" (you are one of the principal participants), you don't want to ask questions in front of a lot of people at a meeting.

So the other issue is who to ask. Usually, that person is your boss. The reason is, the boss has the greatest stake in your development; the better you are, the better s/he is. A good boss will recognize that and try to accommodate your questions.

There are some situations when you have a bad boss, or one who favors another co-worker over you, which would (largely) rule out that option.

Who else can you ask? Basically, someone you can trust. Possibly a peer or co-worker, possibly a prospective (or actual) mentor. Executives have been known to confide in secretaries or janitors, and find that these people are more knowledgeable than they would have guessed.

Having focused on who to ask, the question of "when to ask" is answered by "at a good time for them."

The reason I emphasize "who" comes from Michael Lewis' "Liar's Poker." Someone asked a trainer, "how do you become successful at Salomon Brothers?" The trainer thought about it and said something like, "Most of you are going about it wrong. You are asking yourselves what you want. You should be asking yourself who you want. It's a jungle out there. So figure out who is willing to "adopt" you and help you advance in the company." And then ask them what you need to know.

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Note: as the question specifically aims at meetings, this answer aligns to that scenario.

You'll have to weigh up the problems you face, either look attentive and eager to learn by overcoming your fear of looking stupid or keep doing what you're currently doing. But, my advice is if someone knows and you don't, just ask.

Asking more questions is not only effective, you learn a hell of a lot from asking even the most simple ones. Don't worry too much, though. You have several times you can ask and whom to ask (depending on your confidence):

  1. If and only if you aren't disrupting the meeting or the person hosting the meeting, just ask the question there and then. i.e.

    "Sorry, could you elaborate on that?"

    or

    "Sorry, what does XYZ mean?"

    this will not only quench your worry about not looking like you're paying attention, it also has multiple benefits: You'll learn (rather than waiting the rest of the day to go home and read up on it) about it there and then, but it can also set the tone for the meeting (someone else might be in the same boat, and you've just set the bar for the types of questions you can ask, thus, an opportunity to learn more from more questions from your peers).

  2. After the meeting pull the person who ran the meeting to the side (if you didn't want to disrupt them, or didn't want to engage within a group setting) and ask them to elaborate further on what they said. I'm sure most people wouldn't mind (unless it's something you've learnt in the office before and should already know)

  3. If the person is a superior and you want to keep face with them, you can simply pull a trusted colleague to one side after the meeting and ask them about one of the problems you faced or compare notes (they might have something written down you didn't know about), sometimes with other programmers, I would compare notes and rubberduck them and learn that way. But, in a normal office environment, just simply ask them:

    "Hey, you know when they mentioned XYZ in the meeting, do you know any more about that? I'm looking to learn a little more."

These options may make you come across as "stupid", but you'll also come across as someone who is willing to own up when they don't know something and someone who is wanting to learn more about the topic at hand.

Further Reading:

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When is it OK to ask "stupid" questions? Whenever you need to!

You're absolutely right that it is very common for people to find themselves in these situations. The reason for that is that no one will know everything as soon as they begin (a new job, project, class, etc.). And that is why there is no reason at all to consider these questions stupid. That's the first point. Besides, industry terminology and project parameters both seem rather critical, and not-stupid, to me.

The thing that would be "stupid," or not a good idea, let's say, is if you let yourself get behind just for not asking, if you undermine your own genius just to save yourself a little embarrassment ... when, in fact, the boss will probably be grateful that you're following along well enough to have intelligent, pertinent questions.

But maybe what you're trying to ask is, "how do I know when I'm crossing the line from asking intelligent, pertinent questions ... to being pedantic about it?" The thing about pedants is that they're "excessively concerned with minor details." Will your boss look fondly on you if you keep interrupting his or her presentation for definitions to every word you haven't heard before or with every little question that pops into your head? No...probably not!

How I draw the line is by asking (myself) questions like this: Can I follow along? Are the terms I'm NOT familiar with keeping me from understanding the presentation I'm listening to (or whatever), overall? If I answer yes and no, respectively, then I try to save my questions at least until the end, and if I can take thorough enough notes, maybe I can take what I DID learn and piece it together myself, after, by looking up the few terms I hadn't heard before on my own. Or if I can tell at the end that I am going to need a primer, I try to ask a brief, cogent question that gets right to the heart of whatever I'm not getting.

It is also important to do what we can on our own, as much for our own minds as anything else, and when piecing together what I can, after, that's when I usually figure out what it really is that I don't understand. And then the next morning, I just try to get in the office maybe 10 minutes early and plainly tell the supervisor, "Hey, I was looking over what you were talking about and there's a bit here I just don't understand." They're usually really happy to be approached this way. But be prepared, because you may have to say, "Well, you see..." and break down what you do get so he or she will understand what you don't get.

And just one more thing. I'm with you that it can be very embarrassing to have to raise your hand right in the middle of something, but sometimes it happens. It's really no big deal – who'll even know in 200 years, right? But when that happens, I've always found that you come across more intelligently when you can say, "If [blah, blah, blah...] and [blah, blah, blah,] too, then [question, question, question]?" instead of just, "what is [that]?"

In other words, while it's true that "there are no stupid questions," it's best to make them as smart as you can!

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Your question seems to be directed towards meetings specifically, and not so much towards a classroom/group setting ... that being said,

I suggest you ask for an agenda in advance for the meetings to which you are attending. Meetings should have an agenda anyway to keep people on task and efficient.

This will give you the necessary time to prepare yourself to give as much concise contribution as possible which will increase your value to everybody else in attendance.

The purpose of a meeting is to allow collaboration and input from individuals and/or a place to give instruction. If you foresee an unclear subject matter that could affect how you do your work, and you've done what time permits to delve into it beforehand, then there is no 'shame' in asking a 'stupid' question.

If you've requested preparatory information and were not given it, and such an unclear topic comes up in conversation during the meeting, go ahead and ask the 'stupid' question. Meetings bring together individuals that are really good at different things as to get the best ideas brought forward. Not everybody in the room will have your jargon or perspective, just as you don't have theirs; it's part of the purpose of having a meeting. With proper preparation on the meeting planners part the little questions won't need to be asked, but it happens, and when it does, don't feel bad for asking.

Companies also have their own jargon and way of doing things, many people come from other companies that have different procedures and traditions. If you are newer to a group that has always done their own thing a certain way, it wouldn't hurt to pull somebody aside (a new friend?) after the meeting and explain to them the unfamiliarity of your circumstance and ask them if they can clarify some things, with a follow up of asking if that person can be approached in similar circumstances in the future. This will also provide perspective for this person to recognize situations which may be a bit unclear for you and provide an opportunity for him to help with the clarity during the actual meeting.

I must note though that many items on a meeting's agenda won't apply to everybody. If the subject material at hand doesn't apply to yourself, then don't interrupt the flow of conversation to ask to get the question/material clarified that doesn't apply to yourself.

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