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What Do I Do? I Don't Understand!

Updated on February 20, 2015
We all know this look and feeling.  What the heck does that mean?
We all know this look and feeling. What the heck does that mean? | Source

Sometimes Even The Directions Confuse Us

People are sometimes embarrassed when they don't understand. Relatively intelligent people shake their heads and get that perplexed look on their face, and we all know that they don't have a clue. Still they are hesitant to say they do not understand something for several reasons:

1. They create the illusion that they are smart and should understand.

2. They create expectations based on their past experiences that they ought to figure this one out.

3. They don't want to appear dumb or stupid, so they don't ask others.

4. It's awkward when we don't understand the directions or solutions given by others.

However, all of those reactions to confusion is just counter-productive. This is especially true if it's a new subject, a how-to, or different concept or idea. In those cases, it's pointless to be embarrassed .

  • If the problem is a new one, why do you think you ought to know how to resolve it?
  • If the directions don't make sense, why don't you ask for clarification?
  • Why do you think you ought to understand something if it's the first time you've encountered it?

Multiple types of the shape, triangle
Multiple types of the shape, triangle | Source
Musical instrument, triangle
Musical instrument, triangle | Source

Sometimes We Don't Even Understand Terminology

It's rather like the first time you took a Geometry class. Except there's Plane and Solid Geometry. Sure, we knew what a triangle was, but then again, there's several types of them:

  • Equilateral
  • Isosceles
  • Scalene

See this is how confusing some things can get; we have a general idea about something, but if the subject is not general but specific, we may get baffled.

Compounding our knowledge of the triangle, we also have to know that it is a musical instrument.

So, there's the shape called triangle, and then there's the instrument called a triangle.

Therefore, learning about any new subject means that we have to be clear about definitions, intent and purpose. Usually, learning about anything new requires repetition, asking questions for calcification, and doing something more than once.

It gets frustrating to keep asking for clarification sometimes; again, because we think we are smart enough to understand it the first time. However, asking questions is better than making mistakes. The old adage of measure twice, cut once comes to mind.

No question is foolish. Having your questions answered, restated or rephrased can help you to understand more clearly, removing some of the likelihood of making a mistake.

One goes into the other, but which one?
One goes into the other, but which one? | Source

Do You Ask for Clarification?

When you don't understand something, do you

See results

My Recent Lesson In Not Understanding

Before you think I'm just lecturing, this article was prompted because I got a recent purchase made in China.

Quality was excellent, a friend had one and I liked it. However, the directions were in Chinese, which I don't read.

I finally decided that an English speaking engineer sent the directions to a Chinese engineer to build, who then had a third person translate them; probably another engineer, and I don't speak engineer, either.

I could not figure out the directions obviously, but it had pictures. Surely, I could decipher them. Well, there's pictures and bad images.

These directions had bad images. Plus, I had one large bag full of several kinds of screws, nuts, bolts and thingamajigs The pictures showed various screws or bolts attaching, but I couldn't tell which kind. I knew what a deadbolt was, but there wasn't one in this assortment.

So, I did what we all do today, I checked the internet. There's carriage, j-bolts, expansion and king bolts. However, I couldn't find an image of the thingamajigs in my mixed bag.

I finally had to ask my 10-year old grandson to finish the project. I watched and asked questions and learned quite a bit.

There are even multiple words for not understanding...that's how confusing it can be.
There are even multiple words for not understanding...that's how confusing it can be. | Source

What Can You Do When You Do Not Understand?

When you realize that you do not thoroughly understand something, try the following:

• Acknowledge that you do not understand.

• Ask the person to restate or rephrase the solution, answer, or directions.

• If you do not understand, do not be embarrassed.

Now, if you still don't understand the directions, ask if there's someone else who can explain it. In the recovery home that I ran, I would realize at a point that my directions for recovery weren't making sense to someone. I'd ask someone else in the group to "translate" for me.

I also explained that sometimes when we are giving directions or solutions, we are limited in how we can explain it, not that the person who didn't understand our directions is too dense to get it. That removed a lot of embarrassment for the person who didn't understand. The reality is that sometimes the directions are as clear as mud.

Be respectful of a person who has tried to explain and cannot explain any better than they have. Everyone says things slightly differently, just as people learn differently.

Also, be polite to someone who tries to explain something but tells you that they're unsure of their directions. Or the person that tell you that they don't know enough about something to attempt to teach someone else how to do something.

Come on, we've been putting puzzles together since kindergarten.
Come on, we've been putting puzzles together since kindergarten. | Source

“I Don’t Understand" Can be a Manipulative Ploy

People sometimes use, "I don't understand" when they want to:

  • Get out of doing something.
  • Are too disinterested in the topic to learn about it.
  • Just want others to do things for them.

People sometimes use “I don’t understand” to escape looking at something or being accountable. If you find that you use this excuse, or people explain things to you multiple times and you don't pay attention, it might mean that you're disinterested, not listening, or you're just not putting in the effort to understand.

Have you ever used, "I don't understand" to get out of doing something?

See results

You Do Understand, You Just Don't Want to Do It

It's hard to use, "I don't understand" if you show that you do. If you followed the directions one time, and the situations are the same, it's hard to make a case for your lack of awareness.

Therefore, I can pretend I do not know a J-bolt from a carriage bolt, but my grandson knows better.

© 2015 Marilyn L Davis


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    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good evening, Romeos Quill; glad you liked the article. I have to agree with you, someone (like myself) who is in their 60's just can't pull off the pouty lip manipulation as easily as a 20-something. And even then, that's a bit of a stretch. ~Marilyn

    • Romeos Quill profile image

      Romeos Quill 

      3 years ago from Lincolnshire, England

      “I Don’t Understand" being a manipulative ploy is a great observation; seen it done by young and old alike but it's quite funny when someone elderly tries it on with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, trying to act like a five-year old when you know full well that they just can't be arsed lol!

      Asking for clarity of instructions or advice in weighty and important matters; especially when the initial instructions given were unclear to begin with - no shame in that at all.

      Thanks for a fun, useful article and a provoking read.

      Best Wishes;


    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good evening, Ann; what value you added to the article. I would not have known about cultural differences with the issue. So glad you educate me. I appreciate that, as well as the grand kids. ~Marilyn

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      3 years ago from SW England

      I used to be ashamed to admit a lack of comprehension but not any more. I find that there is often at least one other person in the same boat.

      I used to tell my dyslexic students that it was a mark of maturity and intelligence to ask if you're not sure; surprising how many then asked questions! Needless to say, I acknowledged their courage.

      Trouble is, there are cultures which teach that it's rude to say you don't understand, implying that the other has failed in his task to explain. I soon learned not to ask any Japanese in my EFL classes whether or not they'd understood (shouldn't have asked that anyway!) because they always said yes. Instead, I'd ask questions to check their understanding which is correct practice of course.

      Great hub! Isn't it great to have grandchildren who know how things work?


    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good evening, manatita44; both of us are glad he was available. She smiles. The other interesting thing about directions, is that most people don't give incorrect ones knowingly. That would be a reflection on them, so for the most part, I tend to listen. Thanks for your comment. ~Marilyn

    • manatita44 profile image


      3 years ago from london

      Interesting life situations, and glad that the 10-yr old could help. Good message about the need to ask for clarification.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, travmaj; I like your reference to muddle head. That is certainly an apt description. The remotes in our family are the technology that gets the most comments. "Nana, it's always this button." I then try to explain that the button on this one is green, the other was red, so I was legitimately confused. It doesn't always work. ~Marilyn

    • travmaj profile image


      3 years ago from australia

      MDavisatTiers - Oh yes, muddle head I'm afraid especially with technology. And yes, grandchildren are great at solving my problems - although often they do it too quickly and then explain - not always my best moment.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, Always Exploring; I can certainly relate. My grand kids dread it each time I've gotten a new TV or changed providers. I try to pay attention to the service rep and I do watch closely, but for the life of me, sometimes those pictures don't make sense after they've gone. Nuf you said. ~Marilyn

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I can certainly relate to this subject. I have nil brain cells when it comes to technology. It took me ages to put a picture on my computer from my cell phone, then they are so crooked they make me lol. If I do not know, I ask, then sometimes I must ask again and again..You get my drift, nuf said. Cheers.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, Say Yes To Life; got worried there for a minute...couldn't see the LOL at first. You are welcome for the steps and thank you for the fun comment. She smiles. ~Marilyn

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 

      3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      Duh - what is this hub about? I don't understand. LOL!

      Thanks for breaking down this issue step by step!

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, Jodah; I think what you're describing is what I call "selective stupidity". I could learn about a car engine but I don't want to. My Dad told me as a teenager, "Either learn how to fix something, or make enough money to hire someone." If I had to I could learn to change the oil, or whatever, and I bet you could learn to fold that fitted sheet if there was no one around to do it for you. For now, neither of us has to, therefore, "I don't know how to do that" can apply. She smiles. ~Marilyn

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning,Venkatachari M; the asking for clarification seems to be a learning curve. My grandson often doesn't ask, but is willing to be helpful, so thank goodness he is available, like your son.

      As I said earlier in a comment, ego is a factor as you point out. ~Marilyn

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, Ericdierker; thanks for the comment and laugh. I'd forgotten that quote. In some ways, the ego protects us when we ask rather than looking like the fool. In other cases, the ego prevents us from asking. ~Marilyn

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Good hub Marilyn. I agree with Bill, my wife and I are not always on the same wavelength when it comes to giving and understanding instructions. In a lot of instances I have in my mind how something needs to be done and she instructs me to do it differently (usually leading to the same outcome) and I have trouble understanding..and vise versa. Some things are just beyond a man's learning ability, like how to fold a fitted sheet. Anyway, the other comments were all interesting too. Voted up.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      3 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very great topic here. It is true, we sometimes hesitate to get clarified by people if ego comes in between. We try to find out on our own first and then only go to ask others. But, now I often try to get clarified immediately asking questions with my son or anybody that I may find. When nobody is there, I search on internet.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very interesting article. I got so plugged in to asking questions that it just never occurred to me to shy away from the concept. Better to ask and look the fool than to keep your mouth shut and then prove it.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, MizBeJabbers; thanks so much for adding value to the article with your personal experiences. That's one of the things that I like about comments -they tend to enhance the original. Your examples also made me smile, so thanks for that as well. ~Marilyn

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James-MizBejabbers 

      3 years ago from Beautiful South

      My husband will not ask for directions except that he has learned when putting something together, as in your case, to ask me to read the directions while he does the assembly. That is a slick way of getting me to point out which bolt is A and when it is time to install C.

      I had my own ploy at my job. When I first started to work at my editor's position -- and a few years thereafter -- I had little understanding of law. I was a journalist trained to interview people, so I would start asking questions that skirted around the obvious, that I had no understanding of what he was talking about. My boss loved to talk, and pretty soon he had the whole situation explained in such a manner that I understood, and he never new that I had been completely in the dark about the key point.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, DJ; are we related - sounds like our kids are anyway. Thanks for the update on the video. You stay warm, too. ~Marilyn

    • profile image

      DJ Anderson 

      3 years ago

      Marilyn, the second video is really appropriate.

      There is no foul language.

      You should be good on the videos, but who am I to give any kind of advice. I only learned to put photos in two hubs before giving up.

      It took a good six months just for me to learn to copy and paste!

      My son is an IT for a large computer firm. I thought he would be great

      help to dear old mom. Turns out he has no patience to teach me diddly.

      Wish I had know all this while sitting on those hard bleachers during

      little league, band competitions, swim meets, scouting activities, bowling league, and guitar lessons. Not to worry. All those hemorrhoids got pinched off when I gave him driving lessons.

      Have a super weekend. Where ever you are, stay warm!


    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, DJ; how funny. I've been with people, like your husband and shook my head listening to the directions. Or the person who knows where it is, just not any street names or routes and tries to explain the "commonly known" landmarks to a person from out of town.

      No, I didn't know about the other video; thank goodness it wasn't an inappropriate one. I'm new to doing videos. Should I remove this one or what? Don't want to do something wrong per Hub. ~Marilyn

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good afternoon, Bill; at least you two have figured each other out with respect to communication. Some couples never learn the subtle, or not so subtle differences in communication and don't take the time to ask for clarification.

      I also wonder if writers are by nature literal or figurative? My suspicion is that we are more figurative, although I've been accused of being literal as well...Ah, well, another point to ponder. ~Marilyn

    • MDavisatTIERS profile imageAUTHOR

      Marilyn L Davis 

      3 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, Sally; thanks for reading and your comment. I got taken when I first opened the house. I'd clarify, rephrase and blame myself for inadequate directions. The same directions that 99% understood. Took me about 6 months to realize that there was either association with the disliked parent or they were just not going to hear directions from me, so "translate" was created. Also, some would just pretend to get out of following the directions. That usually didn't work too long. ~Marilyn

    • profile image

      DJ Anderson 

      3 years ago

      Great article, Marilyn.

      I wonder if there has been testing which showed if males or females

      give better directions? My Dad used to say things like, "If you get to the

      hardware store on the left, you have gone too far." He was a creative genius in some areas, but he failed miserably at giving directions. The same with my first husband. The house we lived in was three turns

      off a main corridor. Or, two turns, if one went a bit further. I would hear him giving directions, and think to myself, 'I know where we live and even I cannot follow his directions'.

      Did you realize that behind the first video there is a stand-up comedian

      doing a short routine on giving bad directions?

      Outstanding job on this article.


    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      All great points, Marilyn! I have only to look at my wife and I to relate to your points. She is very literal...I am very figurative. Our conversations are peppered with confusion, and we are constantly stopping in the middle of a discussion to get clarification. We've learned along the way, and asking for clarification has been the key.

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      3 years ago from Norfolk


      I definitely understand the 'don't understand ploy' which some people like to use. I no longer fall for that one:)

      I don't mind admitting I often find computer speak difficult to understand but I don't mind asking when I really can't work it out myself.

      It's pretty handy to have a kid around these days:)


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