At work I’ve spent a lot of time mentoring new hires, I generally enjoy doing it and seeing things through the eyes of a new hire can help point out weaknesses in the usability of a product or a lack of existing documentation. One thing I really like to encourage early on is for the new hire to be comfortable asking questions.

I think our industry and culture places a lot of value on ‘being smart’ which then creates an opposing fear of looking stupid. I suspect there are a lot of reasons for this, from media portrayals of the solitary genius to kids growing up with the idea of ‘being smart’ tied into their identity (as I imagine a lot of kids interested in computers and software have). While some personalities push through this on confidence alone, a lot of people doubt their own abilities and experience some form of imposter syndrome. One manifestation of this is being afraid to ask questions. This is unfortunate since asking questions not only helps you learn faster, but can often end up making you look smarter anyway while not asking questions because you’re afraid can end up backfiring [1].

In software (and probably any new job) there are a ton of things you won’t have heard of before. When you admit ignorance by saying you haven’t heard of something and ask what it is, a few positive things happen. You learn whatever it is you didn’t know and you’ll also typically bond a bit with the person giving the explanation. Asking also helps clarify what you’re discussing and it shows you’re actively listening. This can increase the bandwidth and value of the conversation - admitting ignorance also puts people at ease since it reduces their fear of doing the same. If you neglect to ask about something when it’s being discussed then the other person will typically assume you do understand - when it becomes clear later that you don’t you’ll lose some amount of trust and can end up ‘looking stupid’ anyway.

Most people when asked a clarifying question will answer helpfully, but occasionally in toxic cultures (and most undergraduate engineering classes) you’ll run into someone who feigns surprise at your question. This usually takes the form of something like, “You don’t know what X is?!”.[2] This can be really damaging and I suspect this is at least a part of what drives people away from more technical subjects in general (reinforcing the idea that they’re not smart enough etc.). The most effective way I’ve found to handle this is just to admit ignorance and ask again, “No, I don’t know what X is - what is it?”. Typically it turns out the person feigning surprise has only a cursory high level understanding of whatever it is you’re asking about anyway and is unable to answer the question.[3] Even when they do know the information at least this way you learn what it is and push back.

I’ve found this fear of asking questions runs pretty deep - even after giving the above explanation new hires will often not ask for definitions of terms that I know they can’t know (since it’s some jargon specific to the company that I don’t even know and they just started). The best thing to do in these cases is lead by example by admitting ignorance and asking in front of them, then directly point out that there’s no way they’d be expected to know whatever it was and that it’s completely fine for them to just ask - this seems to help.

A culture where people are afraid of asking questions can’t be a curious culture. That seems like a terrible thing to lose.

[1] This doesn’t mean asking questions with the sole purpose of trying to look smart. This comes across as annoying and obvious - the point of asking questions is to understand or clarify something you don’t know. It’s not to show how brilliant you are with your insightful question (this is doubly true if you’re asking a question you already know the answer to).

[2] A friend at Google had someone mock them in a meeting when they asked what regular expressions were and still remembers it years later (they were an intern at the time, but that shouldn’t really matter). When you see someone do this stand up for the person asking the question. Everybody gets exposed to something for the first time at some point.

[3] I’m not sure why people do this - I would guess it’s related to the same underlying fear of not being smart enough and feigning surprise is an attempt to look smarter at somebody else’s expense.