Why Men Can’t Admit They Don’t Know Something

My friend Ace and I were hiking somewhere in the Utah desert several years ago when he asked me, “Have you ever heard of Male Answer Syndrome?” The way he said it, I knew he was about to tell me something funny, the way someone asks, “Have you heard the one about the pirate who walks into a bar with a steering wheel sticking out of his pants?”

Male Answer Syndrome, Ace explained to me as we hiked along, is when a man is asked a question and, despite not knowing the correct answer, starts talking anyway, instead of just saying, “I don’t know.”

For example, you might ask me if Tolstoy used a typewriter, and I might start talking about things like when the typewriter was invented, I don’t know, maybe mid-1800s, seems possible, I don’t actually know the exact dates of Tolstoy’s life, but I did read War and Peace about 20 years ago, even though I put it down for over a year after reading the first 300 pages, but then I picked up right where I left off and finished it, and it was about the War of 1812, so Tolstoy must have written it after that, although I’m not sure of the publication date, but it seems like maybe it would be possible that he wrote it on a typewriter? This example actually happened in my house the other day, with my wife, Hilary, asking that exact question, maybe rhetorically.

When Ace told me about Male Answer Syndrome, I laughed, because I’d definitely been symptomatic for most of my life, probably starting in high school, or maybe even before that. If someone asked a question out loud while in my presence, I rarely said, “I don’t know”—I preferred to act, like I’ve seen many men do, as if the question asker was trying to open a jar of pickles and was holding it out to me and everyone else present, asking, “Wanna take a crack at it?”

And I did. I have guesstimated driving time from one place to another in a city where I’d only spent two hours (“I think that’s in neighborhood X and we’re in neighborhood Y, and I believe they’re on opposite sides of the city” ). I have lobbed out theories about restaurant-menu items I’ve never heard of with amateur linguistics, guessing about names of cities or countries or even Spanish words, even though the menu is not in Spanish, instead of just asking the server. I have, more than once, been wrong about a thing, in 150 to 300 spoken words, instead of just shutting the fuck up and saying, “I don’t know.” Sometimes I am very wrong, sometimes just kind of wrong, and the older I get, the more I try to stop doing this thing, Male Answering Syndrome.

Years after Ace introduced me to the term, I was still thinking about it. Last year I started trying to find the origin of the term. Male Answer Syndrome was most notably written about by a writer named Jane Campbell in 1991, in a brilliant piece in Details magazine, which no longer exists and has no online presence. (The term actually goes back even further than that, first appearing in an article by David Stansbury in a 1983 issue of Third Coast Magazine.) The only way I could get the verified text of Campbell’s essay was to buy a print copy of the January 1992 Utne Readerwhich republished the article.

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