“How do you know?”





“How do you know?” is a really useful question.

People often assert things very confidently, without giving a reason. Sometimes it’s easy to respond to their confidence automatically, and believe them without thinking about it. Which can lead to a lot of mistakes.

The question “How do you know?” can be very helpful. Sometimes it’s something you can ask directly — some people are very receptive, and will think about their reasons and give you a good answer. Sometimes they know their reasons; sometimes they haven’t thought about it before and do think about it when you ask the question.

Some people don’t respond well to that kind of question, and asking isn’t always a good idea. But you can still ask yourself the question. Sometimes thinking to yourself “How do they know?” helps. Sometimes thinking to yourself “How do I know whether or not that’s true?” helps.

For instance:
Therapist: My client is engaging in a lot of attention-seeking behavior.
You: How do you know she’s doing it for attention?
Or you to yourself: How does he know she’s doing it for attention?
Or you to yourself: How do I know if he’s reporting her motivations accurately?

Teacher: This shard of pottery shows a king walking a dog. We can learn from this that dogs were associated with high status.
You: How do you know that it’s a king in the picture?
Or you to yourself: How do we know whether crowns meant kings?
Or you to yourself: How do I know if the teacher is right about this being a picture of a king walking a dog?

tl;dr Sometimes it can be easy to believe someone because they sound confident. One way around this is to get into the habit of asking “How do you know” or asking yourself “How do they know?” or asking yourself “How do I know if they’re right?”

sassafrassial said:

I think we should add that this is not a good question to ask someone if they tell you something about their identity.

realsocialskills said:

That’s a really good point, thank you. And I think it applies more generally: Sometimes the answer to “how do you know?” is none of your business, and in those situations, it’s usually a really bad idea to ask.

squidids said:

There’s also nuance here. Like, if you are also trying to figure out your identity, and you are talking to a close friend where these kinds of questions are on the table, “how do you know?” may be a perfectly reasonable question to ask about identity. 

This is important because there’s often an Official Narrative about how people know their gender identities/sexual orientations/etc. and it’s not true for everyone. People who don’t fit the Official Narrative often spend a long time thinking that they can’t possibly be what they are, because they don’t fit the Narrative. This hurts people. And often the only way for people to realize that the Official Narrative doesn’t apply to everyone, is when they can have open discussions about how people know things about themselves.

But the way that people know things about their identities is often really intensely personal, so if you’re not talking to a close friend and making it clear that you’re asking for advice, it comes across as very intrusive and potentially hostile.

realsocialskills said:

That too. And there’s some additional nuance here that’s important that I’m having trouble finding words for.