What might I be doing or saying that is causing people to label me as ‘smart’ or to think I’m smarter than I actually am?
December 22, 2011 1:24 AM   Subscribe

What might I be doing or saying that is causing people to label me as ‘smart’ or to think I’m smarter than I actually am?

It bothers me when people tell me I’m smart. People think it’s a compliment, but it makes me uncomfortable. This doesn’t happen terribly often, but is definitely more than a one-time thing. Warning: I tend to overthink everything! It’s just how I am.

A little background: Because doing well in school was always easy and natural for me while growing up, and I loved reading, I was always considered one of the ‘smart’ kids. Despite being shy and a bit (ok, maybe a lot) of a nerd, I was never bullied and always had lots of good friends. I’ve realistically never seen myself as anything more than average. I’m fairly good at a lot of things, but not really spectacular at anything. As I continue my education (now in grad school), it’s becoming more difficult to live up to what so many people apparently thought I’m capable of – I can’t get perfect grades, of course I don’t know all the answers, etc. (I also understand that there are many types of ‘smart’ other than book smarts, and the older I get, the more I realize I hardly know anything!) and it seemed like people started to realize I’m more average than they may have originally thought. Which is a good thing! It made me feel like I fit in with people better and was more relatable when they didn’t think I was more intelligent than them. (Note: I never actually claimed to be brighter than anyone, but for whatever reason, other people would make that claim every once in a while.)

So through college and up til now I thought I was really pulling off the average/ normal thing and I felt like I was better connecting with people when, out of nowhere, someone mentioned by email that “I am smarter than him,” so concerning the topic we were both confused about and discussing, “I must be right.” (As a side note, I wasn’t trying to be ‘right,’ in fact, though he must not have realized this, I generally agreed with what he was saying, but as I was having trouble understanding the topic, I asked questions so that he could better explain it to me. However, I guess my questions just brought up more questions for him too, and we both become more confused than before. So I think his response was his way of ending the discussion for now). The point is that this interaction made me aware of how much being labeled as smart really bothers me – I’m not sure I had actually realized this before.

So despite my thinking otherwise, somehow I am still being seen as 'the smart one' by at least some people. I don’t understand what I’m doing to cause this, but would prefer not to be called smart. It may seem silly since it's not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes me feel uncomfortable and very disconnected from people. What might I be doing that causes people to think of me as the smart person? It’s definitely not my grades. Those are quite average. Though I am fairly detail-oriented and tend to notice grammar mistakes (not promising everything in this post is right! :), I don’t ever correct people unless they ask me to proofread a paper or something. I don’t really use ‘big’ words in daily conversation. Maybe it’s because I look a little like a stereotypical smart person tends to look? (I suppose this would be my wearing glasses and not being anywhere close to society’s idea of pretty?) I don't go out as much as some people and sometimes I can be a little socially awkward, depending on how comfortable I feel with the people I’m talking to. But in general, I get along with everyone.

Please don’t take this the wrong way. I greatly value intelligence, intellectual conversations, smart and witty people, etc., and I love to learn (I’ll probably be in school my whole life), but I’d really like to avoid that ‘smart’ label that I feel distances me from people. I realize that to some people, standing out as some great intellectual may be their greatest goal, but I’m happy being in the background, and at this point, I just want to fit in. I know I’m not really all that smart, and I’d prefer people to see me as the average person I am.

Yikes, I rambled on quite a bit, so I will try to sum it all up in a couple of questions:

1. What might I be doing or saying that is causing people to label me as ‘smart’ or to think I’m more intelligent than I actually am?

2. How can I avoid this label? (Maybe this’ll be obvious after seeing answers to #1)

3. I guess part of my dislike of being called smart (or being told I’m smarter than someone) is that I feel less connected to people, like I am less relatable. I’m not sure what question to ask from this… How about: How can I fit in better and be more ‘normal’?

I appreciate any insight and suggestions! Thanks!!
posted by lfergie401 to Human Relations (55 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
1. There are a wide variety of things that I've noticed people pick up on to consider someone smart:
-Having an opinion on a "complicated" subject
-Being good at guessing answers on topics where you have only passing familiarity
-Being well read (which feeds into the first two)
-Being able to explain something that someone else thinks is complicated
-Being "good" at something "hard" (like math)
-Thinking before giving an answer to a question
-Being an introvert/generally quiet person
-Asking good questions

For 2&3: Frankly, when people tell me that I am smart and they are not, I tell them that the stuff I do is mostly the same stuff they do--organizing information, etc. I am just doing it in a specialized area.

The fact that the above list, many of which I would see as necessary to be a competent adult, separates for some people "smart" vs. "dumb" really hurts me. There isn't any reason why others can't develop these skills for themselves. And there is no reason to hide these traits. They make for good conversations and help you meet interesting people.

Finally, get over it bothering you. Let it roll off. It's not a big deal. You know where you fit intellectually within the world--hold onto that.
posted by chiefthe at 1:35 AM on December 22, 2011 [21 favorites]

I get this a lot too, primarily because I read a lot and like to talk about things that people consider "smart people things": world affairs, interesting ideas, race, gender, culture (basically the things that MeFi likes to talk about). Perhaps it is a sign of my true nerdiness that I only recently realized that not everyone likes to talk about these things; I just tend to attract others who also like to discuss these topics.

As a matter of fact, I had to ask my Facebook friends what "normal" people talk about. Some of their answers are:

- the opposite sex
- football aka soccer (or sports in general)
- celebrities
- what they watched on TV the night before
- pop culture in general
- why their job sucks
- their exercise routine

My initial thought is that you should just embrace who you are and never mind what people think, but since you want to fit in, perhaps you could discuss some of the things on the list instead.
posted by so much modern time at 1:45 AM on December 22, 2011 [11 favorites]

I greatly value intelligence, intellectual conversations, smart and witty people, etc., and I love to learn (I’ll probably be in school my whole life)

I think you need to recognize that the only way you're going to avoid the 'smart' label is by either changing what you like or learning to pretend that your interests are different than what they are. The things you've listed here are pretty much stereotypically what people identify with 'smart people.' Especially the bits about intellectual conversations, wittiness, and loving to learn.
posted by bardophile at 1:51 AM on December 22, 2011 [8 favorites]

To be honest, I feel similarly (like being called "smart" is a way people distance/elevate me and it makes me uncomfortable) and have always gotten this a LOT from my dad's side of the family, which comes from a very working class background and of which I've always had the impression that somewhere they've written off their own intelligence; they're perfectly smart people, they just dismiss even very simple things as too complicated for them. They mean it as a compliment but I would get distanced by the whole "oh you're smart thing" since I was fairly young just because I made good grades; I didn't talk about anything nerdy and I was popular at school, but they treated me like I was some quiet genius that stayed home reading all day. It was really surreal and I don't think they ever really understood how alienating that was for me and they didn't try very hard to actually get to know me. It really sucked and I started to not look forward to family reunions because I somehow wasn't really family if I didn't get Cs. They were super funny, great people too, and even if they HADN'T been smart, it's not like I would have cared. I think some people worry that "smart" people do care, though, especially if they don't think enough of themselves and think of "smart people" as being a group of Others.

After having that extreme example to compare later, similar reactions to, this is what I've noticed:

- People who say this are usually genuinely nice, and do believe they are paying you a compliment.
- They are, unfortunately, usually sincere, which makes me feel awkward because it's often phrased in a manner that puts them down as it elevates me. I'm not talking about people who are self-deprecating for the sake of humor here, either, which to me comes across more confidently.

In short, some people are insecure and they tear others down; these people are insecure but are genuinely nice and see others as actually above them in some way and have some happiness for them.

Realizing that hasn't made me feel less alienated or awkward, and has actually worsened my discomfort in some way because there's little I can say to change anything and it's hard for me to focus on the compliment instead of their low opinion of themself, and I also usually feel the compliment is off-base, e.g. I didn't demonstrate any unusual amount of intelligence and I am no smarter than they are.

However, after a few years of that realization, it has helped me quit freaking out about whether I give off some academic/elitist/nerdy whatever aire, because only a small few people seem to react this way, and I have seen some of them react similarly oddly to other people who are perfectly smart, but aren't behaving in any unapproachably or generally intimidatingly smart way. So chances you aren't doing anything unbearable, and are instead running into people who sell themselves short in a relatively pleasant way. It will still feel distancing and disappointing, but you'll drive yourself crazy trying to see things their way or act in some way so as not to trigger it; from what I've seen, it takes very little to trigger it. I had an acquaintance look at me as if I were a wizard for keeping a new trashbag under the old one so I can immediately install it after taking out the trash. It was just some crap I read online. I said this. It didn't matter.

Of course some people are also just blowing smoke, but those are easier to read and react to, at least in my opinion. The ones that really mean it are the uncomfortable ones.

All you can do is thank them, really, and try not to pick yourself apart.
posted by Nattie at 1:56 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

People may think you are smart if:

- you have middle class mannerisms when they or you are working class
- on discovering something you don't know about, you want to learn more about it
- on discovering something you can't do, you believe that you can probably learn how to do it
- you have an interest in literature or science
- you don't have an interest in sports
- you use long or Latinate words or complex grammar
- you don't use your local dialect (this may be UK specific)
- you don't use the dialect people expect from people with your skin colour
- you are introspective
- you think logically rather than emotionally about an emotive topic
- you have basic research skills (even at the "type it in google" level) and use these to answer questions that come up in day-to-day life.
- you are literate on some topic that your conversation partner is not: personal finance, basic geography, history of your country, current affairs, basic science.

They will comment on your smartness more if they find it surprising because of your gender/race/dress. It's always possible that "Wow, you're smart!" really means something more like "Wow, you have basic intelligence! Since you were wearing a short skirt I assumed you would be an idiot".
posted by emilyw at 2:10 AM on December 22, 2011 [32 favorites]

In my experience, this is the #1 way on how to get labelled as smart:


The less I say, the more I've seemed smarter to people around me. I notice if I am the most reticent person in the room, I become "the smart one." If someone speaks even less than I do, than he/she becomes "the smart one."

#2 way:

Write or read a lot around people who do neither.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:16 AM on December 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

Sorry, kiddo, ya sound pretty smart. I have to be one of the many to break it to you.

This is not a bad thing! It sounds as though you're doing perfectly well socially, since it was only this one person telling you you were intelligent which has thrown you into this spiral of self-doubt. If so, what's the problem? Smart is one of many things one can be. It's a much more useful one than, say, being allergic to grass clippings. But it's just another characteristic that one can possess. People can be good at a great number of things. I wish I could paint or draw, and I cannot. But I don't dislike people who can. I think it's neat.

I don't know. I was always The Smart Kid, and I never had a problem with that. I am not The Smartest Kid, but I am reasonably bright. And it never occurred to me to resent it or to question it. I think I am lucky that way. You're not the only person I am aware of who feels otherwise about it. When my husband and I started dating I said something in a group of people which struck him as too "smart" (I think it was an offhanded reference to Greek mythology or something), and he rather nastily said "No one cares, you know." When I told him later that that had been pretty hurtful, he apologized and told me that he was reacting viscerally to his own lifelong dislike of being seen as The Smart One, and thus unapproachable and weird. This is not something I had noticed in my own life since high school. And as my husband has been absorbed into my group of friends, he's stopped worrying about it too. It's not that there's an IQ test to hang out with us or anything. It's just that no one I currently know resents people for being intelligent.

I suspect you might be blowing this concern out of proportion. I mean, you're a grad student. Presumably you hang out with other grad students. That is not a group which disdains intelligence, in my experience. If this is based on childhood prejudices, just realize that the mean kids are not around to make fun of you anymore, because they grew the hell up. It's not such a big painful deal in the real world. If you're afraid that admitting to yourself that you may indeed be Smart is going to require you to become arrogant and horrible, well, it won't. You're in charge of whether you become arrogant and horrible. And, check this out-- you're clever enough to notice if you do, and stop!

I think you should just accept that your intelligence level is your intelligence level, whatever it may be, and stop worrying about it. It worked for me.
posted by Because at 2:19 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

I get it. Lord knows why. My suspicion is because I'm very opinionated about politics and religion...and to be horridly honest...I'm constantly calling people who have right-leaning politics, espouse gender stereotypes, smokers and people of faith... stupid. People who aren't as confident in their intelligence put up with this from me and think it makes me intelligent. Between you and me, it just makes me obnoxious.
posted by taff at 2:21 AM on December 22, 2011

out of nowhere, someone mentioned by email that “I am smarter than him,” so concerning the topic we were both confused about and discussing, “I must be right.”
Translation: I no longer care about discussing this topic. With an additional overtone of either a) I'm making no progress on understanding this, time to move on, OR b) I'm pretty sure I understand this better than lfergie, but I don't want to say something rude--instead I'll just pretend to agree and then do what I think is right.

Furthermore, looking and sounding like a well-educated person makes people think that that's what you would like to be complimented on. It's low-hanging fruit when someone wants to give you a passing compliment but doesn't actually have a strong opinion about how amazing you are... They just think you're generally OK and would like to receive a compliment. (A more obvious example would be someone who puts effort into dressing well--they're more likely to receive compliments about that, even from people who know nothing about fashion, because it's clearly what they would like to be complimented on.)

(Oh, and this isn't to say that you aren't smart. Dunning-Kruger effect and all. It's just that...compliments come in varying levels of sincerity, and I wouldn't get lathered up over them.)
posted by anaelith at 2:23 AM on December 22, 2011 [11 favorites]

Do you talk quickly? Type fast? Are you quick to come up with answers to questions? Do you speak abstractly? Do you use complex words?

These are some triggers I know that set off the "they're smart" radar.
posted by krilli at 3:54 AM on December 22, 2011

Some observations from a person with similar experiences:

From the OP: "I greatly value intelligence, intellectual conversations, smart and witty people, etc., and I love to learn"

From chiefthe: "-Being "good" at something "hard" (like math)" "-Asking good questions"

From emilyw: "- you have an interest in literature or science" "- you don't have an interest in sports"

All these are true for me - a curiosity and willingness to learn from anyone, involved in a complex and burgeoning field, not interested particularly in what most 'ordinary' people are interested in (pop culture and sport), but there's one more element that may telegraph a 'smart' label that comes back to you that makes you uncomfortable - that perhaps you broadcast it unwittingly to those who are threatened / put-off by it, and it ricochets back to you.

Nothing like putting a straight stick next to a crooked one - the crooked one will feel threatened. Much better to hang with the straight stick types - either a bit straighter than you or a bit less.

I find myself uncomfortable around people whose only expertise is who won some game played by people paid millions to do so, and am just a good sport about it. No 'one upmanship' around sharing my own expertise, I just keep my mouth shut, and try to contribute (but I really, truly, could not care at all about such things, as well as what celebrity is doing what to whoever).

It takes a dose of humility to hide your knowledge. To quote the New Testament (no longer religious myself but it comes in handy sometimes) "do not cast your pearls before swine". Ben Franklin put it also bluntly, "He's a fool who cannot conceal his wisdom." And being careful not to put too fine a point on it, William Cowper: "Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much; Wisdom is humble that he knows no more."
posted by scooterdog at 3:57 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Smart people like yourself being unable to recognize their smarts is a thing. It's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In short, it takes someone who knows what they're talking about to realize they don't know what they're talking about. The opposite end is that blithering idiots hold their intelligence in much higher esteem than it deserves. One of the many ways in which the human race insists on killing itself off.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:22 AM on December 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

As you can see, you are not alone in the universe.

Let me guess. Your gifts package includes: perception, analysis, recall, organization, and expository speaking. Stay within your skill set and you will always be perceived as intelligent. Even brilliant. It doesn't matter the topic. The ability to present a cogent, ordered response on any subject immediately makes one sound smart. However, beware of the dreaded 'instincts'! Wander into feelings, intuition, gut judgements, values, and everything labeled 'art' and you will sound and look like a fool. Or maybe, just human.

Seconding the reticence comment. Silence only exacerbates the problem.

Want to connect with people? Instead of providing an answer, start with a question?
posted by birdwatcher at 5:24 AM on December 22, 2011

A lot of good answers concerning the contents of your thoughts and conversations.

One very important point regarding style, hard to overstate it's importance: Complete, well-formed sentences. Do you talk like the books you read?

Sometimes people consider me smart even when I have no idea what I'm talking about, just because I manage to find the fitting verb to conclude a sentence.

See also:TvTropes - Realistic Diction is Unrealistic

Another reason, which was already mentioned: Having unusual opinions about some popular topic and being able to explain your reasons for having them. See: Less Wrong - How to seem and be deep.
posted by Triton at 5:29 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

If being labeled smart bothers you, look them in the eye and say, "No, just practice."

It's not self-deprecating because it acknowledges that you have put in the hours to gain the knowledge. It justs lets them know that it didn't come to you in some brilliant flash of white knowledge light, and that you were standing in the right place at the right time.

Elders would say something more to the point, like, "You're quick" or "You're sharp," rather than put you on the spot with, "Oh, you're smart."

It does point up how unusual it is for them to meet somebody who's on the ball, so worry about that instead.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:04 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

The term 'smart' is very loaded and sometimes is used as a left handed compliment. I've gotten this as well because I come from a working class background and attended University, worked in academic environments and am known to read a book. You are likely told this because you are living in another kind of world to them.

For a while I believed I was living in that other world, but increasingly I see intelligence all around me. People who work with their hands exercise a lot of creativity and planning. If I spent a day in their shoes I would bungle up these projects that they carry off with ease. They are simply smarter for having spent some quality time doing these things.

As I started to genuinely appreciate the various forms of intelligence around me I have noticed less comments about me being smart. There are, to be sure, some plain dumb people but there are a lot of flavors of smart.
posted by dgran at 6:05 AM on December 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

So if I came up to you and said "wow, you don't sound smart at all," would that make you feel better? More average? More like everyone else in the world? No? And if it did, isn't that also pretty insulting for the rest of the people around you?

You seem uncomfortable with any sort of label that you believe create barriers between you and other people. You seem to try to be thoughtful perception of others but I don't think you are. I think you're primarily uncomfortable being yourself, you seem shy, and you are uncomfortable being different. Or, rather, you are uncomfortable thinking that you are different. It sounds like you don't like being you.

Listen, you said that school was easier for you when you were younger, you're college educated, and you're know in graduate school. If you don't want others to view you as smart, drop out and burn your degrees. Move away from home or wherever you come from and start having new friends and living in an area where people will never have heard of you being smart. And if you want to only be "normal," start only hanging out with a small group of people who are just like you and never talk to anyone else. Or you could instead embrace yourself, embrace who you are, and learn that you can connect to anyone, and I mean anyone, no matter what labels another person puts on you. There are skills you can learn but one of the main things is that you have to be as accepting of others are you are of yourself. If you can't embrace yourself, you can't embrace others as fully as it seems you claim you want to. You'll become "normal" when you focus on developing personal relationships and you commit yourself to those relationships rather than playing the game of trying to "fit in" into some norm that you have made up in your mind (and a norm that is never going to be real anyways since you are the one who has embraced it as an anti-you).
posted by Stynxno at 6:16 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

It might be helpful to focus more on adapting your conversational style to your audience if you do truly wish to avoid being slapped with the "smart guy" label.

- you have middle class mannerisms when they or you are working class
- you use long or Latinate words or complex grammar

Those are two are habits that can give the person you're talking to an impression that you're "above" him or her. I used to get that comment about being "the smart one" a lot when I was growing up. I would use "big" words, impeccable grammar and complex sentence structures, and give my opinion on a lot of topics my friends weren't familiar with. I didn't use to use slang and colloquialisms either, but now I've adopted a more casual way of speaking. It could be argued that it's inauthentic to dumb yourself down this way, but connecting emotionally with friends and acquaintances and putting my conversational partners at ease is important to me, especially since I do a lot of networking for business purposes. Dressing more casually, engaging in small talk (=not necessarily talking, but appearing engaged and being receptive to your conversational partner's chatter), and cutting yourself short when you have a longwinded explanations or opinions can all make you seem more down to earth. Not engaging in prolonged intellectual arguments helps too, because most people don't want to debate or explore ideas to determine the ultimate truth - they just want to be heard and validated no matter how off base or factually incorrect they are about an issue. I'm referring to your average joe here, not one of your colleagues in Academia. There are some great self help books out there re: small talk if you find that sort of thing awkward or unenjoyable. Whether or not you want to become more of a social chameleon comes down to what you value in your interactions with people.
posted by sunnychef88 at 6:18 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Self-deprecation. If people are using the "smart" label to distance themselves from you, you need to tell a story that shows you're "normal" to get them to see you as someone who goes to work and buys groceries and makes mistakes too.

A friend of mine with her Ph.D. had success by talking to people about how dumb you need to be to go to grad school--"spending all this time getting paid peanuts, and in the end I still get paid less than the electrician next door!"

When people get weirded out about my own Ph.D. and fancy-sounding science background, I sometimes tell the story of the breakfast I had the morning after my Ph.D. defense. My husband wanted two pieces of toast, and I wanted one piece of toast. I put two pieces of toast on my plate, and one on his, realized it was wrong, and *swapped one piece of toast for the other* instead of taking one of my pieces of toast and giving it to him. And I could not figure out why that didn't work. Because I do math good.

(Also, you're aware that in college and grad school, you're hanging out with a more and more select group of people, correct? Where everyone was at the top of their class, so the average IQ in the classroom is a lot higher than out in the street. People might be treating you as "average" there because you ARE average there--doesn't mean you're average at the local bar. And several people upthread mentioned the Dunning Kruger effect but I think that Imposter syndrome might be more relevant.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:23 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, I just remembered - one tendency I have in conversations is to treat the person I'm talking to as an expert by asking them a lot of questions about their field of expertise, whether that be cell biology or dog training or fixing cars. Everyone's good at something, and it makes the person you're talking to feel good about themselves to be genuinely interested in what he or she knows, no matter how important it is to your personally, or whether you know more than they do about it. Everyone has something to teach you, and some sort of accumulated wisdom to share. You don't come off as a know-it-all if you let the other person take the stage and don't try to steal their spotlight with corrections or saying everything you know about the same subject. No matter how well intentioned your interjections might be, they can take the wind out of someone's sails rather quickly. Try a couple strategies and see what works and feels the most natural for you.
posted by sunnychef88 at 6:34 AM on December 22, 2011

Being a lady who can talk about serious things, doesn't smile or giggle several times an hour, wears glasses and may not pay as much attention to makeup, hair, or dress as is "typical" outside of academia, will absolutely stereotype you as "serious and intellectual." Being a lady who generates your own (clever) jokes instead of just laughing at others' one liners is a marker for some people too, more so than it is for men. Not being into gossip can freak folks out. (As Mrs. Roosevelt said, small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas.) Don't discount the role of differing gender expectations. (For instance, I guessed you were a fellow girl even before you said "not pretty" because hey what guy worries this much about being seen as smart amirite? Just kidding, but do you see what I did there?)
posted by availablelight at 6:52 AM on December 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

- you don't use your local dialect (this may be UK specific)

I'm an American, working class although we lived more like lower middle class, and I do use my local dialect, and I've always gotten the "smart" handle.

It's because of my glasses, my vocabulary, my reserve, and also because I don't giggle.
posted by jgirl at 6:58 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Also, as someone who needs and wants to be able to "code switch" often, I feel your pain about how this creates a feeling of distance...I overcompensate with curiosity and questions about the other person to signal that I indeed find them very interesting and worth my time and respect and I don't give two craps about any perceived--or even actual--difference in education or IQ. Sometimes people will still project their own insecurities on you, though...just as they might if you were very attractive, or athletic, or thin, or wealthy, etc.)
posted by availablelight at 7:01 AM on December 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and don't discount Dunning-Kruger. When I've had the opposite problem (being stereotyped as a mouth-breathing dunce because at the time I was working a service job, or was obviously poor)...it was always by someone...not so sharp. Smart folks took delight in letting me know they could identify me as a fellow traveler despite my outer trappings (which is a bit gross and problematic itself but there it is).
posted by availablelight at 7:07 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hm. As a lot of other people have pointed out, in certain social milieus, certain mannerisms, styles of dress, personality types, or the fact that you went to college and grad school will attract comments like, "you must be smart." And in other social circles, saying something like that is a social misstep that people just don't say.

So the issue is not that there's something you can do to stop this from happening. The solution is either to be comfortable with hanging around with people where you're known as "the smart one" (it will gratify your ego) or to find a new social circle-- one in which your habits and manners don't get codes as, "oh, she's smart" and where even saying something like that would tag you as saying something silly.
posted by deanc at 7:08 AM on December 22, 2011

It bothers me when people tell me I’m smart. People think it’s a compliment, but it makes me uncomfortable.

I know I’m not really all that smart, and I’d prefer people to see me as the average person I am.

I think you're missing the whole issue here. You want to understand why other people think you're smart so that you can get them to match your own perceptions instead of determining the root of your own insecurities about your level of intelligence.

Granted, no one likes an insufferable know-it-all, but I don't get the impression that you're of that variety. You write clearly, you obviously value thoughtfulness and pursuit of knowledge. That's "smart" by lots of people's definition. You should really focus on accepting your talents and interests because this whole thing is about you, and not about other people.
posted by ndfine at 7:12 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

In my case, it makes me uncomfortable when people tell me I'm smart because I have some self-esteem issues and OHMYLORD what if I have to PROVE I'm smart? Then everyone will know what a big phony I am and that I've been faking this smart thing all along and I'm really just as much of an idiot as the next doofus!

So, yeah. Get over that and maybe you won't feel so uncomfortable anymore? If I knew HOW to get over it, I'd be really smart...
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:41 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

As someone that gets called smart a lot, it's a combination of things, I think:

1) Speaking well, having a good grasp of grammar, having a large available vocabulary.
2) Knowing a little about a lot of things, or knowing a lot about a few things.
3) Not being shy about sharing an opinion.
4) 'Thinking outside the box' ot the ability to draw connections between things in surprising ways.
6) Being able to think logically and break down problems.
7) Being bookish or introverted.

I don't think there's anything wrong with being considered smart. It opens a lot of opportunities for you to be thought of as the smartest guy in the room... Just be helpful, keep a low profile, don't make yourself a political target and people will tend to drag you around with them as they move up the corporate ladder or change companies...
posted by empath at 7:46 AM on December 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

In addition to everything else people have said, perhaps you are somewhat serious (not the type to crack a lot of jokes besides intelligent witticisms, giggle/laugh, etc). If you feel that you are being distanced by people, it could be your personality -- that is, reserved enough that people feel a bit intimidated, but pleasing enough that they think of you positively. Maybe letting down some reserve will reduce the feeling of being left out of the crowd, without diminishing how you are perceived.
posted by redlines at 7:49 AM on December 22, 2011

Oh and one more criteria, which I think applies to the case you're talking about: "Being inquisitive and intellectually curious".

There are a ton of people who are really good at following clearly written out procedures. It's rare to find someone you can dump a complicated problem on and have them work it out for themselves, or even find someone who knows how to ask the right questions or cares enough to want to really know the answers, rather than just getting the problem off their plate.
posted by empath at 7:50 AM on December 22, 2011

I came here to say what Because did: you should just accept that your intelligence level is your intelligence level, whatever it may be, and stop worrying about it. You are clearly a smart person, and there is nothing wrong with that. Your discomfort with it comes (in my opinion) from being stuck living in a profoundly anti-intellectual society. I think you should start from that assumption and change your approach from "I'm not smart! How can I get people to stop calling me that??" to "How can I minimize the social discomfort of my situation?" There may not be a totally satisfactory solution, but that is the way to think about it.

That said, I disagree with this:

> Self-deprecation. If people are using the "smart" label to distance themselves from you, you need to tell a story that shows you're "normal" to get them to see you as someone who goes to work and buys groceries and makes mistakes too.

Self-deprecation is not (in my opinion) a healthy response. I mean, sure, it's fine to let people see you "as someone who goes to work and buys groceries and makes mistakes too," but to go around being ostentatiously "normal" so people won't call you "smart" is just, well, dumb. Basically, this should be a non-issue; if you can figure out a way to minimize friction with your environment, great, but the main thing is to stop feeling bad about it, because (tl;dr:) there is nothing to feel bad about.
posted by languagehat at 8:40 AM on December 22, 2011

Your "little background" paragraph rang very familiar with me, and something I've figured out about my own self may shed light.

I also liked learning and read a lot, but also felt I was pretty much average. I also did sort of just-okay in college. And then after college had all these people telling me I was smart. I was also puzzled.

But then I figured it out: in grade school and high school, I was a smart kid surrounded by other smart kids. I'd been subtly shunted into the gifted-kids program early on, and that's where all my friends are, so when I was comparing myself to other kids, those were the kids I was comparing myself to -- so of course I was average, becuase it was a group with a high average intelligence. And then in college I was finally getting more of an intellectual challenge than I had in public school and was just digging it, even when I got B's (who cares if I got a B, I was getting a B in some AWESOME TOPIC and that was more important to me). And so it took 20 years for me to even meet people outside that little bubble, and realize that "wait...so...everyone in the world actually isn't like this?"

So in short -- maybe the reason why eveyrone keeps saying you're smart is that...you are, and you were just surrounded by other smart people before and so you didn't notice.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:46 AM on December 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

For most of my life, socially, I felt like I was too smart for my own good, an overbearing, obnoxious, know-it-all. But within the last few years I've been surprised when several people have told me that they think I'm humble and pleasant, a good conversationalist, someone who can be smart without being intimidating or making other people feel stupid.

Kids can be really mean to the "smart" kids, and make you feel like "smart" is a pejorative label. But when you are an adult, and are freer to associate with people who share your values and interests, and won't hate and torment you just because you happen to have some thinking skills that they themselves are lacking. Also, you develop better social skills yourself, and are able to monitor for when you're being obnoxious-smart, rather than fun, interesting, true-to-yourself smart.

You can be smart and still fit in, as long as you're picking the right people to fit in with: mature, open-minded, kind people will accept a smart person for who they are. (It sounds like this describes your friends, by the way.)

Nobody's friends a homogenous bunch of people with identical abilities. You have the friend who's the artistic one, the one who's the great baker, the one who's a fantastic athlete, the one who knows how to fix stuff, the one who gives really good advice, etc. Being the "smart" one isn't a bad thing at all.

Don't try to intimidate people, don't prattle on about some complicated topic while everyone's eyes are glazing over, and don't condescend. It's a fine line between the last two. You need to be attentive to a balance between respecting people's intelligence and expecting to them to be able to keep up with you, while not being overbearing, dominating the conversation, and running off into technicalities that nobody is following. Pay attention to the people around you, and follow their cues.

It's fine to, now and then, geek out about the geeky stuff that you're excited about. Good friends will be happy about your enthusiasm. Just also be sure that you're enthusiastic about the things that they geek out about, too.

When people told me I was smart, I used to deny it, but I'm more comfortable now with who I am, so I just shrug and smile and say, "At some things," and then change the subject.
posted by BrashTech at 8:52 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Don't discount the role of differing gender expectations. (For instance, I guessed you were a fellow girl even before you said "not pretty" because hey what guy worries this much about being seen as smart amirite? Just kidding, but do you see what I did there?)

This, this, this.

People may at best think it's weird/you're weird if you're an obviously intelligent woman; at worst, they can get hostile and aggressive to put you in your place.

Honestly, I'd say "own your intelligence". You wouldn't expect a gifted artisan to shuffle and look at the floor and pretend that her amazing wood carvings were just the fumblings of a butterfingers, or a successful mountain climber to pretend that all it took was a little practice and getting up early.

Being intelligent doesn't mean that you have to be isolated from folks - I definitely have a place in my social circle, for example, as "the one who knows book things and ideology" but people don't grovel about it, and everyone knows not to turn to me if group facilitation or sink-fixing is needed. Also, not everyone cares about book-learning, so frankly plenty of people think "hooray, Frowner reads hard books and takes care of that boring ideological angle so that I don't have to". There's no envy, just relief that someone in the group knows some history. I view my reading/knowledge as my role in the group, not as something that makes me better than everyone else. (I mean, sometimes I feel a little snobby about it, but nothing serious)

I'd say, think of being intelligent as just one thing that folks are. Don't be afraid of being better than others at something - that's how women are socialized to feel, and it's a killer. (Especially in graduate school.)

Also, graduate school. In a graduate program, you are usually surrounded by smart people. It's not that you aren't living up to your potential; it's that your peer group is more like you than it used to be.

I just don't buy this 'we are all equally intelligent in our own ways and so everyone should downplay their different intellectual skills for fear of looking like a snob or an outsider'. No, we should play up our skills and learn to value other people for their skills as well. And that's a two-way street - your friend who says "you're smarter than me" may be sincere (I sometimes defer to expert friends when I'm at a loss and mean nothing by it) or he may be getting at you in a gendered way or he may just be passive-aggressively insecure. Any way it goes, this is on him.

Also, honestly, unless you are really, really unusually accomplished - someone once posted here about being a highly educated designer of experimental medical procedures AND some kind of super-fancy athlete on top of that - you shouldn't have to self-deprecate just to get along with other grown-ups. It may be that your peers don't have quite the self confidence to deal with others without being either obviously superior themselves or grovelingly apologetic, but equal deals are the normal adult goal.
posted by Frowner at 9:04 AM on December 22, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think it's partially your education. The majority of people worldwide don't have college degrees. In Europe, for example, most do not have university degrees. (Sorry, the link is over a year old.) Graduate degrees are even rarer. I think a lot of people equate "smart" with "educated," even if it's not necessarily the case.

I myself have three master's degrees (long story) and people often think I'm some kind of genius and/or cray cray. You do sound smart and well-spoken though...I'd just enjoy it.
posted by dovesandstones at 9:06 AM on December 22, 2011

I know I’m not really all that smart, and I’d prefer people to see me as the average person I am.

Also, emotionally healthy people already basically do. I have very seldom met anyone who cowered in awe at my genius, even though in certain ways I'm pretty darn clever and people have remarked on the fact. Most folks are just like "eh, Frowner's the brainiac one, but Joe can program and Lin always comes through in an emergency and Henrie is great at stage make-up."

It sounds like you overvalue (or are over-anxious about) intelligence as a thing in itself.
posted by Frowner at 9:10 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

oops, that link was on graduation rates for a particular year, not on the population as a whole. guess i'm not as smart as i thought! :) but it's still true that most people do not have a degree.
posted by dovesandstones at 9:21 AM on December 22, 2011

1. do not recommend trying to play it off or self-deprecate. if you don't like coming off as smart, you're really not going to like coming off as falsely modest.

2. since nobody else seems to have hit this angle...are you *sure* you don't like being called smart? i don't think i'm unusual in typically giving people the compliments i think they're asking for, on one level or another. strategizing how to control others' reactions to you is a red herring - your energy would be better spent examining your own ambivalent feelings about intelligence and intellectual accomplishment.
posted by facetious at 9:24 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Smartness is like musical ability, except smartness has baggage.

When your friend learns the saxophone with impressive speed and plays expressively, they show natural musical ability. Maybe they built on that ability by using it -- maybe the sax is their 9th instrument -- but they were also lucky in being born with an enhanced ability.

Would you expect your friend to intentionally play badly so others don't comment about their ability?

If you learn easily, you're naturally curious, and it's not hard for you to analyze stuff, then you have intellectual ability. You've also had the good luck to be born in a society that lets you develop that ability formally with advanced schooling.

That's all it is. You have this ability and others have other abilities. You'll be a lot more comfortable if you can just accept it, be grateful for it, and maybe figure out how you can use it to make the world better.
posted by ceiba at 9:44 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with a lot of the others above. I pulled one sentence from your post:

"I don’t really use ‘big’ words in daily conversation."

Of course you don't... because they're not 'big" words to you. Or at least, that's *my* problem. You see, as a child, my only friends were books. This gifted me with a larger than average (for the society I was surrounded by) vocabulary as well as the "bad habits" of [as said above] "using long or Latinate words and complex grammar".

The thing is, I never really noticed these things until and unless someone [mostly my family] pointed it out. I didn't *feel* like I was using a larger vocabulary, or not speaking "normally". It was just the way I spoke. The words didn't *feel* big, because I knew what they meant. Not that I don't have the "small" words in my vocabulary, just that they don't come as readily as what some people think are "big" words. Also, most of the time, the "small" words don't feel as precise.

So I don't really have any solutions for you, but maybe the above rings somewhat true? At the very least, you're not alone. Many a conversation with my family has left me exhausted from trying to play dictionary/thesaurus to get my point across. And yes, it's frustrating and alienating that they tend to think of me as "too smart" for them.
posted by MuChao at 9:55 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

As I continue my education (now in grad school),

This is really throwing me off to tell you the truth. Isn't it basically your job to be smart? I might have some advice for someone who wants to socialise with a crowd that isn't intellectually oriented, but I admit that I'm a little nonplussed by this this situation.
posted by atrazine at 9:56 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Take care that people are not manipulating you. Don't be so quick to assume people are putting themselves down. Some people are extremely good at saying just the right thing to people to get the reaction they want.

Whether they are massaging your ego or tapping on an insecurity, don't assume your understand other people's intentions.
posted by ServSci at 10:02 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you overvalue (or are over-anxious about) intelligence as a thing in itself.

This. You're not the only person who gets uncomfortable with people who chime in with, "wow! you must be smart!" You're one of the few people I've ever encountered who's trying to figure out how to be "less smart" (as opposed to more socially adept) in the eyes of others.

Really, it's not you, it's them. If your mannerisms and interests are such that you can't pursue them without making other people feel uncomfortable by tagging you as "the smart one," then maybe you need to find other friends.

I was going to post an extremely snarky essay on "how to be average," but decided against it.
posted by deanc at 10:11 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have found that it's often a case of just having a wide an d generalist knowledge of the world. If you like browsing Wikipedia you end up seeming smart... Because when someone says they are from Syria, and then you ask "Ah, Damascus? Aleppo? Are you Alawite?" that seems to you like just very general world knowledge, but to the broad masses it sounds like you are smart.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:16 AM on December 22, 2011

I'm a fat girl with glasses. In a certain way, I think these are the only compliments that people can find for me. In some ways, I'm bringing it on myself.

When I use metaphors that use literary references, movie references or serious references, I get "you're smart" or "the smart one", also, if I show any excitement around finding an answer to a problem. Apparently being excited about finding an answer, no matter how challenging, is a smart people thing. Clients have forgotten my name and just said things like, "Make sure that smart girl is in the next meeting, too." Feh.

When I use metaphors that try to use references my audience would get -- TV, music, Hollywood movies, cartoons from the '80s -- I get the "you're funny" thing. But really, I'm not. I'm just weird in that instance.

I find both distancing and weird. So now I hang out with people smarter than me and funnier than me as often as possible. After a lifetime of being told how smart I am, it's remarkable how uncomfortable getting my butt kicked in Scrabble is or being the only one in the room who doesn't know the details on the Bosnian war, but it's nice to be able to disengage like that.

So, in short, make sure you're not stating exploration or curiosity as fact -- sounding like you know where you're going is the surest way not to get directions. Overthinking in your head is your business, but make sure you're not overthinking outloud.

And hang out with much smarter people to the point where it's almost uncomfortable and then think about the things the smarter people do that are dick moves -- and don't do those.

Otherwise, "thank you" and move on, smarty.
posted by Gucky at 10:27 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

No advice, but an observation by way of a quote from one of my favorite movies, American Splendor. Harvey Pekar, the film's subject overhears a guy talking about a girl he met:

Guy #1: So is the girl smart?
Guy #2: Well, I guess she's about average.
Guy #1: Average? Hey man, average is dumb!

(And as conveyed on the cover of American Splendor.)

That could be one reason so many people label you as smart.
posted by The Deej at 10:46 AM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you are generally calm and understand your strengths and weaknesses, then you are head and shoulders above most people.

Maybe when people compliment your "smarts" they simply mean that you easily do things that are difficult for them.

Or maybe they are just being complimentary - either way you should be gracious.

Unless someone is asking you to do something you are not qualified to do, the correct response to being called smart is to accept the complement.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:50 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I get this a lot too, and it bothers me as well. It rarely seems like a compliment to me. I've done a lot of thinking about this because I too feel that I am of average intelligence.

My conclusion has been (and maybe this is the case for you too) - what gives people the impression that I'm smart is my ability to know my limits and pursue goals I can attain. A specific example comes to mind.. years ago, I had to do a project for a class. I barely had more knowledge than my classmates, but chose a project that was both interesting and attainable. A lot of them chose projects that they'd never be able to finish in the time frame. When we presented our projects everyone acted like I was a genius - not at all - I just knew how to choose a project I would be interested in and could actually finish (and I worked hard at it).
posted by beyond_pink at 10:51 AM on December 22, 2011

Do you realize that 3 out of 5 people don't read a book after high school. That people spend their days at work, watching TV, talking with people about those above mentioned topics, taking care of kids, goofing off on stupid websites, watching sports, watching porn ect ect
If you go outside this norm, you are considered smart.

A funny thing happens when you realize that people don't care about 99% of the things that exist (photography, nature, philosophy and on and one) and only really care about that narrow field of topics. Why would you want to be at their level (not to sound pretentious). If you had to have a job where you could only interact with "normal"people all day, trust m e you would be begging to get back to grad school and be around people who have more interesting things to talk about then their kids 24/7.

Get a job in retail to see how the majority of people think.
posted by eq21 at 10:56 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

To answer your specific questions:


I took some notes while I was reading your question. These are just the things that you yourself mentioned which society perceives as indicating intelligence (accurately or not):

Did well in school
Did not "do GOOD in school" (grammar!)
Reads books
Grad school
Wise/humble ("I hardly know anything!")
Slightly socially awkward
Love to learn
You're posting this on MetaFilter... ;)


Be someone you're not.


DON'T be someone you're not. You seem rather well adjusted. Just appreciate your existing friendships, and don't be afraid to make new ones. People aren't necessarily intimidated by someone they percieve as being intelligent, nor do they expect perfection from you. If they do, they're not the type of person you want to be associating with anyway.
posted by tipthepizzaguy at 11:05 AM on December 22, 2011

When you have a really good memory, people will often interpret that as you being smart.
posted by soelo at 2:07 PM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I wore contacts for 10-15 years, and one day had a problem with my lenses and wore my glasses to work. "You look so smart today!" several people exclaimed. As somebody who LIKES being perceived as smart, I've given up contacts and worn glasses ever since.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:21 PM on December 22, 2011

Also, not sure how to put this (as I'll probably be flagged, even though I'm being sincere) but if you want to bolster your image as a less intelligent person:

Take baseball cap, wear it backwards.

I am not kidding. I am know there are geniuses/smart people wandering around with backwards baseball caps, but as a popular cultural symbol, nothing screams "I probably don't like reading" more than a backwards baseball cap.

Good luck.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 3:17 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

It would be an interesting experiment to switch to contact lenses instead of glasses and see if people react to you differently. I've often been tagged with the "intellectual" label, and I found that people were noticeably warmer and more friendly to me once I gave up the Coke-bottle glasses. It could be that simple.
posted by Corvid at 4:11 PM on December 22, 2011

A really good friend of mine thinks I'm super smart because I have a better memory than she does. Try forgetting things more?
posted by IndigoRain at 7:37 PM on December 22, 2011

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