How do I bring my too-smart-for-his-own-britches down to my level?
March 7, 2013 1:11 PM   Subscribe

I have a friend who I communicate with on Facebook, etc., who will routinely alienate everyone from a conversation by using highly technical terms and arguments, even in casual debates. Any suggestions with witty or equally logical responses that will make him recognize he needs to communicate in laymans terms... or at least something that someone without a doctorate degree would understand?

Admittedly, he's one of the smartest people I have ever know. Confirmed to have an extremely high IQ, and is currently pursuing a doctorate degree of some sort and breezing through the workload.

But it's making him harder and harder to communicate with. I'm sure there's a term for this I can point out... that while he may become better educated in a particular field, it doesn't make his opinions stronger, or have any more influence. In fact, the language he uses means less people can learn from him.

There's got to be a quote out there by a world leader or philosopher addressing this very issue, but I'm open to quotes from any MeFiter!
posted by Unsomnambulist to Human Relations (48 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In English please?

This shows up a lot in my friends facebooks. We pretty much all work in science but different fields. It gets used a lot in relation to sports too.
posted by fshgrl at 1:18 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Dude, you sound like a pretentious ass right now. Knock it off and tone it down."


"No, you literally become the worst and most anal-retentive douchebag when you switch into professional know it all mode. Put it in English or stop talking."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:20 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: But it's making him harder and harder to communicate with. I'm sure there's a term for this I can point out...

I believe the word you are looking for is pedantic.
posted by lobbyist at 1:21 PM on March 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: "I need that in Captain Dummy Talk, Kaylee."
posted by The otter lady at 1:22 PM on March 7, 2013 [27 favorites]

Any suggestions with witty or equally logical responses that will make him recognize he needs to communicate in laymans terms

Be direct and polite. "Dude, when you talk like that, you turn people off. If this is your goal, congratulations, you win. But please stop it. It's alienating. Rather than people wanting to learn more about what you know, your language makes us stop listening."
posted by rtha at 1:24 PM on March 7, 2013 [9 favorites]

I have a friend like that and I have taken to responding, whenever this person starts doing this, by just saying blankly, "I have no idea what you're talking about." It tends to work.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 1:24 PM on March 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Fshgirl & feather... while appropriate, those are my first reactions... but the opposite of what I'm looking for here.

I'd love to have equally smart/wordy responses. Simply saying I have no idea what he's talking about would come across as a victory to him (and what fun is that?)
posted by Unsomnambulist at 1:26 PM on March 7, 2013

'Do you understand that sufficiently to explain it to laypeople?'
posted by Trivia Newton John at 1:29 PM on March 7, 2013 [94 favorites]

Honestly, I don't know if tossing off a pithy one-liner on Facebook is really the best way to communicate this to your friend. If you interact with him in meatspace, take him out for a beer and say "hey, I think you're a smart guy with valuable opinions, but I feel like you have a tendency to steamroll people."

On Facebook, if you feel like he's being domineering, ignore him and engage with other people. If, on the other hand, he has a point that seems to mesh well with the conversation as a whole but is just not slowing down enough to explain it, be sincere--"Hey, that sounds like an interesting (foo)--could you break it down a little more for me?"
posted by kagredon at 1:29 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You could just link him to this over and over again.
posted by KathrynT at 1:30 PM on March 7, 2013 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I'd just say, "I simply can't agree with your premise." And leave it at that. It'll likely really intrigue and infuriate him. He'll ask you to clarify what part or why, and you'll say you refuse to engage in his logical nonsense/fallacies.

posted by taff at 1:30 PM on March 7, 2013 [17 favorites]

Best answer: The Philosopher Einstein once said "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough"

Along similar lines:

"You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it." - Richard Feynman

Note - the first quote is popularly attributed to Albert Einstein, but a quick google suggests that might not be a sure thing.
posted by anonymisc at 1:31 PM on March 7, 2013 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Back in the day, when I was an obnoxious, pretentious Young Thumbscrew, I behaved a lot like your friend. Then, one day at work...

Me: [obnoxiousness]
Coworker, Irritated: "Yes, Jul, you're very smart. But OTHER people are ALSO very smart, too."

Swear to god it knocked me off my high horse - or at least to a slightly LESS-high horse - right then and there.
posted by julthumbscrew at 1:33 PM on March 7, 2013 [23 favorites]

I have two questions for you. First, is your friend trying to communicate and persuade in these Facebook conversations...or just show off/score points? And second, are you trying to help your friend to become a better communicator...or just score your own points?

If you have any suspicion your friend is engaging in showoffy behavior, really the best reaction is to ignore it. Just don't respond to his comments at all - attention of any kind will be gratifying to him and just reinforce his approach.

And if you're trying to one-up him, please try to resist the urge to do so? I know it seems like harmless fun, but that sort of point-scoring behavior is slowly toxic to real friendship. Do you think your friend will like being on the receiving end any more than you do? Relationships don't get stronger when both parties are equally hurt...they get weaker.

But if you really do think your friend wants to engage with people and just isn't doing a good job of it, and you want to maximize the chances that your friend will take your advice to heart, put your comment in positive terms. Something like "That's a really great point, and I bet even more people would agree with you if you put it into more layperson-friendly language."
posted by psycheslamp at 1:51 PM on March 7, 2013 [12 favorites]

Simply saying I have no idea what he's talking about would come across as a victory to him

This is very telling. It certainly sounds like he's just after feeling superior, not actually communicating. So I would ignore him; his ego is his own problem, not yours.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 2:05 PM on March 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

My vote is, you just leave him alone. Trying to predict what's best for friends and criticizing their behavior is almost never a good move. If you really don't like him, don't be friends.
posted by facetious at 2:07 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Make a real reply to whatever he says, but do it in a language that you are fluent in and he isn't. When he objects, channel the horribly snobby father of one of my childhood friends and say something self-righteous about uneducated Americans. Continue to reply in this language to everything he says.
posted by cairdeas at 2:09 PM on March 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

The following may sound a little more annoyed than you intend, but the logical basis is, I hope, extractable and useful. Maybe you could friendly it up a little:

"Mr. Gefrododammer, what exactly is your goal in communicating with me? If it is to transmit ideas and information, you might find that efficiency increases if you restrict your vocabulary to our shared lexicon, rather than using jargon, neologisms, or to-me-obscure words to which my experiences have not yet exposed me. It can be challenging to navigate both complex ideas and audience-appropriate language selection, but I hope you won't find it too distracting.

"In any case, a high level of this skill in communication will probably serve you well!"
posted by amtho at 2:11 PM on March 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Trivia Newton John has the only answer that makes sense to me . As Rutherford said, "it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid."

However, communication of technical things is hard. Most people are really shit at it. The really talented can do it simply, the same way that an Olympic gymnast can make a 10.0 floor routine look effortless.

What you need to communicate is this: if he isn't striving to emulate a Feynman or a Sagan or a Degrasse Tyson, he's not succeeding. A scientist who can't talk to anyone about what they do is as unsuccessful as any artist who cannot communicate their art.
posted by bonehead at 2:12 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

In high school, I basically had no friends. I was one of the top three students in my graduating class. Everyone knew who I was and hated me for it. The teachers held me up as evidence of their awesome teaching skill even though it wasn't true and made me a target. Being an obnoxious asshole and proving I was smarter than everyone else was the only defense I had. Ultimately, I passed up a spiffy scholarship, dropped out of college and walked away from all that.

Maybe this person is just insecure and it is a defense mechanism. If making real friends seems impossibly unattainable anyway, it hurts less to distance people who won't really care anyway. If so, pithy comebacks won't help. They will only reinforce a negative dynamic. They will only prove you really don't care about his feelings.

Plus some of this may be completely unintentional. He knows the words. He may not realize other people do not. Generally speaking, I get myself in much worse social hot water with humble assumptions that I am nothing special than I do from egomaniacal assumptions that I know more. I still can't find the sweet spot. All approaches appear to offend someone. I tend to assume any know-it-all is wrestling with similar social problems.

I would try to focus on asking for clarification when I don't understand without being biting about it. I have found that if someone has a phd and I google the big words I don't know and then say "If I understand you correctly, [laymen's terms]." they are usually happy to say "yes" or "no" or "not quite (additional explanation)". I have gotten some really good info that way from total strangers.
posted by Michele in California at 2:18 PM on March 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

Old joke, but ask if he has heard the one about the grad student (originally, postmodernist) mafioso:

"He'll make you an offer you can't understand."
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:43 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Simply saying I have no idea what he's talking about would come across as a victory to him (and what fun is that?)


Surprisingly this doesn't change my answer much though.

I'd simply explain that speaking in a manner that everyone involved can understand is a demonstration of intelligence. And not just social intelligence or "wit", but true mastery and understanding of the topics you're discussing.

Anyone can repeat the stuff they just heard in a grad school class last week, or read about in some journal. It takes someone who truly knows what they're talking about and understands the material to explain it to their mom.

I don't think any witty comeback or smart remark is in order here. If he doesn't accept that, or just takes it as a victory that you didn't get it and are just trying to deflect to obscure the fact that you don't or some other leap of logic, then this is basically a sort of addiction to smugness. He'll need to have a wake up call or moment of clarity and decide to stop on his own, no one else will get him to do it.
posted by emptythought at 2:56 PM on March 7, 2013

I agree with Michelle.... Insecure.... I have a very good friend who does this. Very smart but EVERYONE has to know it and gets beaten over the head with it. No advice except to have some patience... They may need a sympathetic ear.
posted by pearlybob at 2:58 PM on March 7, 2013

I once accused someone of pedan-dickery and he hasn't spoken to me since. (So I won both the battle and the war.) He's proud of his blowhard qualities so I'm not sure why he bristles so much at the label.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 3:21 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I see this from your friend's side. Like him, I have tested very high on every g-loaded test. Imagine the time when you found yourself with the dullest group you ever met. You have to hear them guffaw at their idiotic jokes and share their stupid, poorly reasoned opinions. Unpleasant, right? That is why every day is like for those on the right tail of the bell curve.

Really? Perhaps I'm just very, very lucky, but my particularly circumstances and education have brought me in contact with quite a lot of profoundly intelligent people, and in my experience, most of them sought out friends of high intelligence, but also found ways to relate to people that weren't limited to intelligence.

With the exception of those who seemed to get an odd kind of charge off of always being the smartest person in the room, while simultaneously affecting a kind of self-aggrandizing bitterness about it.
posted by kagredon at 3:29 PM on March 7, 2013 [15 favorites]

There is no "upper goer five" translation for this statement. In cumulative bodies of knowledge, there reaches a point where the ideas are beyond that of the layman.

I disagree. The layman may not gain a perfect and full understanding of the statement, but if you can't explain the general, overall idea behind the concept, then you don't understand it yourself. Even worse, you're probably too mired within the assumptions of the field you're already in to zoom out and gain a macro-level perspective of the entire situation. You're confusing jargon within a discipline with obfuscation. In the case of Witten's paper, he's not using these terms because the paper is aimed at a specific audience already.

For example: Here's an okay layman's explanation of string theory.

I agree with kagredon - I've been surrounded by a lot of people with high intelligence. In my experience, the more intelligent someone is, the more they tend not to make strong declarative statements, because they're seeing an issue or an idea with all of its multiplicities.

For example: a layman: "When your neck hurts, it's because you're tense; you should get a massage."
A doctor: "If your neck hurts, there could be a lot of reasons. I really can't diagnose anything until I get more information, so I really can't say anything about your situation."
posted by suedehead at 3:45 PM on March 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

Luckily for scientists, they communicate to other scientists and experts, not people who watch The Discovery Channel in their spare time.

This is flat-out untrue: there are lots of scientists right here on this site who communicate just fine about their fields with those of us who are not experts. And I've had lots of excellent conversations with scientists in real life who can and do talk about their areas of expertise with non-experts all the time, and do so without being either condescending or snobby. I met an actual rocket scientist at a party once who was great at this!

So no, it's not some impossible task to ask of someone. Many well-educated and extremely smart scientists do this kind of thing all the time. There is a difference between talking about your field with colleagues in that field and talking about with non-colleagues or non-experts; some people are not very good at the latter, but that doesn't apply to all.
posted by rtha at 3:45 PM on March 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'd argue that good, straightforward communication is an additional skill or a talent (or both), but not proof of deep understanding. Some of the most original philosophers (Kant, Judith Butler...) wrote horribly convoluted prose.
posted by ipsative at 3:46 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd just unfriend him, to be honest.
posted by empath at 4:57 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why are you friends with someone who feels happy when he confuses you?

Most intelligent people would feel isolation or a sense of loss when they can no longer meaningfully interact with their surroundings. Something is wrong with this dude.

Normally I get uneasy when someone is accused of being a phony if they can't teach you a lifetime of scholarship in a soundbite. But I guess in his case it is fair game.
posted by 99percentfake at 5:19 PM on March 7, 2013

I know a few scientists who tend to overuse jargon. I think there are a few different causes. Some people actually have a low impression of their own abilities and think that anything they understand must be totally trivial to everyone else, so they don't explain field-specific jargon because they are afraid of wasting other people's time. Another group is made of people who are very knowledgeable but just don't get a lot of practice communicating with people outside of their specific area -- not even lay-people, but say, a geneticist talking to a biochemist or a neuroscientist. People in both of these groups are generally not intentionally trying to intimidate anyone and tend to be more than happy to explain their terms if you interrupt them, though they may have varying degrees of success depending on how good their teaching skills are. Importantly, however, if you say that your admission of ignorance about a particular term would be a "victory" for this person, they probably don't fall into one of these two groups.

Based on that, my guess is that he falls into a third group: he's doing this in order to exclude people and foreclose on any further discussion which might call his argument into question. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that he's wrong! He may well be correct, ultimately. But I can tell you that when I talk to another scientist, if they start to do this it is a major red flag because it suggests they fear their argument will be diminished by exposing it to any further inquiry. (I am assuming we're not talking about total wingnuttery or bad-faith arguments here, which may cause even very patient scientists to get terse.)

Honestly, I think the best thing to do is to roll your eyes and FIAMO, but if you want to challenge him and still take the high road, you can simply refuse to be ashamed of your ignorance and to ask him to explain the specific parts that are unclear to you. This can actually be incredibly effective at differentiating whether someone actually has a point or whether they are pursuing "security through obscurity." If he actually wants to convince you of anything, it can only help his case to explain it to you in words you understand, and it doesn't cost him anything except perhaps his time -- which I gotta say, he is already apparently wasting in great amounts by writing hugely technical posts that he knows nobody else will understand on Facebook or whatever. And if it turns out he's not interested in convincing you of anything but is merely going for cheap "points," well, I think julthumbscrew and/or empath have the right idea.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:24 PM on March 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

I like, "NERRRRRD! So anyway... [continue as if he hadn't written anything.]"

Tailoring your message to your intended audience is a basic speaking skill. Jargon dumping on Facebook to a mixed non-technical audience is the opposite of that.

It's probably one of three things: he's just like that (has poor social skills all the time), he's an arrogant prick, or it's the AskMe Asker effect (which is: he's so accustomed to being nitpicked to death no matter what he says that he preemptively tries WAY TOO HARD to make his opinion/question/answer airtight with every possible detail and term used precisely correctly. Even though almost everyone doesn't care.)
posted by ctmf at 5:28 PM on March 7, 2013

"Could be."

This phrase is immaculate verbal judo. He wants, above all, to be right. "Could be" is disengagement with his whole paradigm and you don't get your hands dirty.
posted by gentian at 7:17 PM on March 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

> Luckily for scientists, they communicate to other scientists and experts,

You must not have ever witnessed the painful experience of watching biologists and chemists attempting to communicate their research to each other, let alone come to agreement on multidisciplinary research goals.
posted by desuetude at 7:53 PM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Luckily for scientists, they communicate to other scientists and experts, not people who watch The Discovery Channel in their spare time.

These must be the scientists who always wonder why their grant proposals never go anywhere.

Good communication is a key skill, even if just to specialists in other fields. In fact, Edward Witten is a very good science writer. Those last four links were written for journals, true, but as explanatory pieces for non-specialists. They're excellent examples of what I'm talking about.

The point, as it applies to Unsomnambulist's friend, is that this is the behaviour a top-level scientist models. It is the role to which we should all aspire, not just a good researcher, but also that of an accomplished communicator. This is, in my experience, having mentored many undergrads, grads and post-docs, a sort of arrogance held by some in the research community. However, if they want to be good, rather than just competent, they need to discard this notion that obscurity reinforces credibility. Ultimately, I view it as a fallacy, a false appeal to authority. It's not something great (or even good) scientific authors practice as a rule.
posted by bonehead at 8:32 PM on March 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Comment deleted. Let's drop the debating with each other and just answer the question. If you disagree with the OP's position, you don't have to answer the question. The question is not "should this bother me?"
posted by taz (staff) at 10:45 PM on March 7, 2013

Why are we assuming that the discussions or debates are about the friend's topic of expertise? The OP never said that. It could just as well be a case of what kyrademon described as "engineers' disease" - "Since I am a very intelligent person, it stands to reason that I am not just an expert in the field where I got my difficult degree, but in ALL fields!" The OP also never said that the friend's area of expertise is a scientific field, and never said that knowledge in the friend's area of expertise is cumulative. The first thing that came to my mind when reading this question was a postmodernist English student denying that there's any fundamental truth in the world. There are plenty of fields producing "experts" where the opinion of the expert is still only an opinion with no more inherent value than anyone else's.

The OP also never said that none of the other people involved in these debates are experts in their own right or in a way that's equally relevant to the topics they discuss. They could be debates about human behavior between an evolutionary psychologist, a social worker, a rabbi, a police officer, and a biologist, for example.
posted by cairdeas at 10:48 PM on March 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

He's probably doing this to (over)compensate for some self-perceived shortcoming. Are you sure you want to participate in his dysfunctional program by trying, certainly futilely, to match his rhetorical boxing skills?
posted by Dansaman at 11:59 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are lots of reasons why we use the language we use; two of the most important are (1) to mark our social rank in some way, and (2) to communicate ideas clearly. Tell him that, and ask which he's attempting with his comments. It's not "smart" to attempt (2) and fail. It's dickish to do (1) on purpose. If he is smart, he'll understand the implications of your comment.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:06 AM on March 8, 2013

Best answer: There is a whole Internet of TL:DR gifs made for this exact situation.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:25 AM on March 8, 2013

Or just write "words".
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:25 AM on March 8, 2013

I only use this on people who I'm sure will take it in the good humor in which it is offered, but I literally have a TextExpander snippet that takes "emfdysi" and expands it to "ENGLISH, MOTHER FUCKER, DO YOU SPEAK IT?" Again, not a widely-applicable tool, but it has had its occasional uses.
posted by middleclasstool at 11:27 AM on March 8, 2013

I have lots of friends like this. I like to respond with enthusiastic compliments... "You are just so smart!" "Wow, That's pretty impressive Doug!" "Sometimes I just can't believe how much you know!"

This is especially effective in large groups.

In most cases, people eventually come to sense that they are being (lovingly) patronized, and if you're lucky it becomes a go-to way to "call them out" without ever calling them out.

People with any social sense who do this, are probably aware that they tend to do it. So they're either in a bad habit and will cut it out when called out, or they're being brats on purpose and everybody else gets a chuckle at their expense.
posted by ista at 2:06 PM on March 8, 2013

People with this behavioral deficiency are common.

People with the inability to successfully deal with people with this behavioral deficiency are common.

Which one needs fixin'?

Seems to me, from a math/logic standpoint, it's the latter. I posit this based on the variety of objectionable behavioral deficiencies that can be presented. Basically, they are infinite.

What are your choices? Eliminate the objection is the goal. This means making it go away or ignoring its presence. One is change forced on The Other, and one is change forced on The Self. You are in charge only of changes imposed on The Self.

If you can't tolerate personality diversity in the world, you are left with imposing your own limitations on others who don't meet your definition for being acceptable. It's just as likely this guy will post a MeFi question saying "My friend lacks vocabulary and technical content. What can I do to make this dummy understand basic concepts?" And, he would be correct in his viewpoint. What would you want him to do?

My guess is that you would want him to accept your limitations. Gander meet goose, right?

If you assess your question honestly, it is basically this: "How can I manipulate another person in such a way that I change his behavior, even if if means making him feel bad about himself or his skills so that I won't feel bad about my intellect?" Not sure that's completely accurate, but if it is, it's mirror time perhaps.

Worth considering, anyway.
posted by FauxScot at 1:55 AM on March 9, 2013

Response by poster: The irony of asking people for pithy responses, and getting longwinded opinions of why I shouldn't ask for the pithy responses instead.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 10:46 AM on March 11, 2013

All the questions you've asked here and this surprises you? You're lucky we didn't tell you (and your friend) to get therapy! ;)
posted by rtha at 11:01 AM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

In my experience, people are either trying to communicate or trying to talk. For most of my life I've been a talker more than a communicator.

Communication is about them. Talking is about me.

I can tell that I've gone from communicating to talking when my wife starts looking impatient instead of interested. And, shortly thereafter, says something like "God, you can be such a patronizing douche sometimes."

Litmus test: are your pauses intended for you to take breath so you can keep talking, or are they intended for you to listen to what other people have to say? It's hard to tell until you really pay attention to yourself.

If your friend is simply not aware that he's veering from communicating into performing, he'll get it and try to change. On the other hand, if you bring this up, and he gets dismissive and defensive, he's probably completely aware of what he's doing and doesn't want to fix it. And is a dick.
posted by scrump at 11:48 PM on March 12, 2013

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