How do I come off as smarter?
May 31, 2014 10:48 PM   Subscribe

If you come off as dumb and/or uninformed in social situations, how do you correct this?

A bit of context, first: Growing up, almost everyone around me saw me as abnormally smart, freakishly smart, enough that people really thought it was the only thing going for me. On pretty much every measure, official and colloquial, of intelligence, I would have rated pretty highly back then. (They don't really have them for adults.) So to anybody who knew me as a child, this question would perhaps be a bit surprising and/or alarming.

Anyway, there was an article in the NYT a week ago about "faking cultural literacy," and I was horrified at how much of it rang true, particularly this:

We have outsourced our opinions to this loop of data that will allow us to hold steady at a dinner party, though while you and I are ostensibly talking about “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” what we are actually doing, since neither of us has seen it, is comparing social media feeds. Does anyone anywhere ever admit that he or she is completely lost in the conversation? No. We nod and say, “I’ve heard the name,” or “It sounds very familiar,” which usually means we are totally unfamiliar with the subject at hand.

I haven't seen The Grand Budapest Hotel. I have read enough reviews that I can come up with a convincing, socially passable reason why I didn't go see it, where the real reason is that I just don't give a shit. But I have said "the name sounds familiar" more times than I can even count. Sometimes the name really does sound familiar. Lots of pop-cultural names pass through the feed. But sometimes it's a complete lie, the name doesn't ring any bells at all. This is bad enough when it's pop culture -- most people won't think you're dumb if you haven't ever seen an episode of Mad Men, even if it results in sitting like a creepy silent idiot whenever you're out with groups who inevitably talk about TV shows you have no possible thing to say about so you just sit there alone. But it's never just pop culture. The New York Times piece doesn't talk about this in a dating context, but this article does, and considering that I have yet to be in a relationship, it is a pressing concern, particularly when you don't really have looks going for you to make up for any perceived unintelligence.

I just got home from a date, which didn't really go very well (he did the whole touchless "it was nice meeting you" thing at the end, which is the agreed-upon code these days). During the date, the following topics were discussed: bankruptcy in the casino industry of Atlantic City; commodities trading in the restaurant industry; macro-level trends in advertising; corruption in New Jersey city councils. I know very little to absolutely nothing about any of these. Unfortunately, there is no way to say "I know absolutely nothing about that, can we please not talk about this" without seeming rude and/or stupid. So I muddle through, saying things like "interesting" and "hmm" and "that makes sense," and I end up coming off stupid anyway. Sometimes I say things that are grammatically incorrect or stammered or just not smart-sounding, because it's very hard for me to express myself verbally, particularly when I have to focus on modulating my speaking voice into some kind of presentable, attractive sound in a loud room and focus on saying something passable. (It's the same whether I'm sober or whether I've had anything to drink.) So I come off even more stupid. Specifically, I come off as, and feel like, a stupid girl. And I know this is internalized misogyny, but it wouldn't be internalized if it weren't a cultural belief in the first place and if people weren't judging women on these grounds. Often I will have a running monologue going at the same time of what I sound like, and pop culture unfortunately has plenty of examples of stupid-girl monologues to cough up. (Lately it's the Chainsmokers' "Selfie," the entire joke of which is listen to this stupid girl and her stupid girl conversation. It doesn't help that I have a very similar voice to her.) It doesn't help that I'm overweight, because there is definitely a parallel stereotype of the "stupid fat girl." It is the sort of stereotype you carry around in your gut everywhere you go, and you are always conscious about whether you resemble it.

If these seem esoteric it's only because it's one example one time. It's always something different. One time it was a record label I liked but that I didn't know all the bands under and got called on. One time it was the upcoming local election, which I'd read some about but apparently not enough to be essentially quizzed on the spot about. One time it was when Occupy Wall Street was a cultural topic, an entire argument where he had statistics and everything at the ready, no Google or anything. I was at a guy's house once and he started quizzing me about world capitals. It would be funny if it weren't so loaded at the time. And of course I don't know the capital of Cameroon or Djibouti or Uruguay off the top of my head, and every time I would say I didn't know, he would say things like "but it's so easy!" and look at me with this distinct contempt. Maybe it was imagined. I don't know. It eventually got bad enough to make me cry, and only then he stopped.

I suppose I'm interested in two separate problems:

- How does one become more informed these days? I don't think I'm particularly uninformed about the world - I read news, and I try to keep up with the cultural conversation - but clearly what I'm doing is only informing me on a shallow level. How the hell does everyone else know what they're talking about all the time? (Please don't link me to whichever Vaunted New Media Explainer Startup of 2014 you might want to link me to, as I find most of them go all the way in the opposite direction and treat their audience like morons.)

- Barring that, how do I come off as if I'm smarter? Are there just tricks other people are doing that I'm not successfully pulling off? Obviously this is a lesser option, but it might end up solving the immediate problem of me coming off as a moron.
posted by dekathelon to Human Relations (64 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Something I forgot to mention in the original post, because it's a bit sprawling: Looking back, I realize that most of my longest-lasting relationships were with men who were less smart than me, or at least more lazy about it, and they'd express admiration for how smart they thought I was as a result. This bothers me. It doesn't seem like something I want to pursue. But maybe I am simply trying to punch above my weight.)
posted by dekathelon at 10:52 PM on May 31, 2014

You can't know everything about everything.

1) Reading widely AND deeply is good. Yeah, you've got your feeds and your twitter and whatnot, but some good nonfiction (and fiction) gives you other stuff to bring up (instead of reacting to other people's topics). I just browse the new nonfiction section at my library/their ebook page and see what jumps out of me, then check out a lot of it, try a few, and read the ones that grab me cover-to-cover.

2) It took me YEARS to learn to say "I don't know much about that/haven't heard of it/only recognize the name" because it went against my own "smart kid" image. But that was making the conversation about me, and that's a good way to make things fizzle. A conversation where one person is faking it and desperately trying to cover their own lack of knowledge about one random thing is a pretty lousy conversation. A conversation where one person says "I haven't heard of X, but it sounds interesting, so please continue" or "I only recognize the name, but I haven't read the series--what's your favorite thing about them?" -- now that's more of a conversation, plus the speaker will probably enjoy a chance to tell you about the thing they're interested in way more than having to deal with a lot of vague replies. Yeah, I'm still working on this, but it does result in much better conversations and relationships. tl;dr --> Lightly, unselfconsciously say you don't know about it and then ask a follow-up question. IF the conversation is worth pursuing, that is...

3) Your capital city quiz guy is just an asshole. Anyone who mocks you for not knowing about any particular thing is either an asshole or has a lot of growing up to do. People who go into discussions armed as though they're doing high school debate...ditto, if they do it to people who don't find that fun. (Not many people find that fun!) Ask yourself if guys like this are worth your time. There is definitely another choice besides "maybe not as smart as I am" and "obnoxious."
posted by wintersweet at 11:06 PM on May 31, 2014 [20 favorites]

Ask questions and make connections. Intelligence isn't about already knowing everything, it's about processing and integrating information.

So you don't know something about commodities trading in the restaurant industry (and really, who does unless they're in finance/interested in finance), just ask about it. Grow your knowledge of it during the conversation. Make it obvious that you're interested and join the dots between that topic and something that you do have knowledge about.

Also it just sounds as if you're insecure about your intelligence. I've noticed that emphasis on intelligence in youth can often screw you up in adulthood if you don't receive the same positive feedback all the time. You can probably make yourself feel better by working out your other personality strengths. Once you start getting more comfortable in who you are you might find that conversations are easier because you're not trying to prove something and can lose yourself in their flow.
posted by bernardbeta at 11:08 PM on May 31, 2014 [14 favorites]

Oh, and if you want a specific recommendation that might not be what everyone else is reading, I recommend Global Voices and Science Daily. But I don't really think a lack of news sources (OR your intelligence!) is the problem.
posted by wintersweet at 11:08 PM on May 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

You should focus on being genuine and not being concerned about whether some dickhole perceives you as not being intelligent just because you can't list all the capitals of all the countries in the world.

In conversations with a potential romantic interest, you should feel comfortable saying you dont much about the subject/topic. Then ask questions, why do you feel that way about x, how did you learn about this, do think?...etc. People love that and they'll see that you're genuinely curious about them. And if you don't want to discuss something, just bring up another topic that you want to talk about instead. Good way to cull the herd.

Pretending to know about something when you don't doesn't really come off as intelligent to me. Intelligent people are curious and should be willing to admit when they dont know something to learn about it.
posted by driedmango at 11:12 PM on May 31, 2014 [11 favorites]

Show your intelligence by showing your eagerness to learn, not by showing how much you already know. I think curiosity is much more endearing and fun than endless knowledge (usually of minutia in these cases anyway), and would guess that others by and large agree.

People that want to talk about facts without analysis are just playing a game of oneupmanship and there's no point in participating in a game like that. Just stroke the other person's ego by nodding and smiling and moving on.
posted by rue72 at 11:13 PM on May 31, 2014 [48 favorites]

Three things (at least, but off the top of my head three) that separate actually intelligent people from merely informed people:

- They generally listen more than they talk.
- They ask questions.
- They build connections between the new things they learn and things they already know.

Most days I don't feel particularly intelligent *or* informed, but when I feel out of my depth in a conversation, I try to spend most of my time listening, and if it's a one-on-one thing, I ask questions (particularly around the edges of things so I can try to figure out where this new information might fit in with something I already know). And then if we get to a point where it seems like it's my turn to contribute something, I'll say something like "that reminds me of X" or "what do you think about Y, then" or "what's the difference then between that and Z" -- that way I'm not only learning something more but I'm also nudging the conversation toward more familiar ground.

I totally get the desire to seem more intelligent or better informed than I actually am -- I spent a lot of my life doing that, until I realized that every time I did that, I was missing an opportunity to actually *learn* something.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 11:26 PM on May 31, 2014 [23 favorites]

In addition to the above, and alternatingly, turn the topic to something you do enjoy and know loads about, even if it happens to be cat grooming behaviour or queueing at Starbucks.
A university professor once told us, "when I started studying, I thought everyone was so much more knowledgable than me. Then I realized that everyone only ever talked about the one topic on which he or she was an expert."
posted by Omnomnom at 11:27 PM on May 31, 2014 [10 favorites]

I become more informed by talking to the people around me and not being at all shy in asking questions and by paying attention/being observant. Otherwise, I probably just read and watch all the same things that you or any other given person does, and am not doing anything special. I'm not well informed on *everything* (obviously) but I think that I'm a pretty well-informed person in general, so that method seems to be working.

In terms of asking questions, I used to write for the school newspaper in college, and it made me pretty fearless in terms of interviewing people, calling up experts, and just generally getting information directly from human beings. I don't know if you've got any reporting or researching experience, but if you do, you actually already have a really strong skill set to use to wring every last drop of information from the world around you. Just apply that fearlessness and directness and lack of ego to more of your social interactions. If you don't have that experience or skill set, just build it by practicing talking to people fearlessly, directly, and with a lack of ego anyway. As long as you've got a sense of humor, too, people will probably like those conversations, because they like talking about things they know about or care about.

As soon as you start trying to "prove" you're smart, though, you're going to look dumb at best, insufferable at worst, so I would avoid doing that like the plague. Not that *you're* the one necessarily doing it in these cases, even. So avoid anyone else doing that like the plague, too, in case they get you to start joining in.
posted by rue72 at 11:29 PM on May 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

i don't think you need to be appear / smarter as much as spend time with nicer people rather than these pseudo-intellectual pricks!
posted by Middlemarch at 11:29 PM on May 31, 2014 [28 favorites]

Saying you don't know about X is a trait of smart people - overtones of interest and curiosity and always ready learn. Saying you don't know about X with overtones of "and I don't care" is what comes off as incurious. Do the former, not the later.
posted by anonymisc at 11:30 PM on May 31, 2014 [9 favorites]

In your first example, it sounds like your date was in control of the conversation. It's not bad that you didn't know about these events, the problem is that either he dominated the conversation or you didn't contribute. In your last example, the guy quizzing you on world capitals was being a dick. Someone called you out on not knowing all of the bands on a record label? I think the first step is to recognize that these guys were not any type of prize; a good date will be looking for points of connection, not looking to score conversational points.
posted by studioaudience at 11:35 PM on May 31, 2014 [12 favorites]

Become really good at something. If you have even one area that you are unquestionably good at, you and all your dates will feel that you are unassailably smart. You could say "I don't know what that is" 10 times in a row, and your date will think "oh I guess she was too busy becoming an expert at X, so she doesn't know commodities or geography".

At one point, I became really out of touch with current events to the point of making some quite embarrassing gaffes. But everyone knew I am really good at one thing, so they gave me a pass.

Learning to be very good at one thing is way easier than being good at all things.
posted by cheesecake at 11:42 PM on May 31, 2014

I, too, worry a lot about being a "dumb girl." In the past year or so I have finally accepted that I am smart and deserve to interact with smart people.

I have mostly given up on trying to "sound smart." When someone starts to talk to me about Unknown Thing I will just say "I don't know what that is/I've never seen that." If I vaguely know about Thing I will follow with whatever potentially relevant thing I know. For example: "I don't know anything about Atlantic City but you would not believe the number of shuttered casinos I saw when I drove through Reno a few years ago." Ideally this will steer the conversation toward "what were you doing in Reno?!" vs. "Let me tell you more about casino finances."

If it is something I genuinely cannot even relate to I will also say so and try to politely change the direction of conversation. This happens to me at work a lot. "Sorry, I really don't know anything about [any of Reality TV]. I don't watch much TV, I prefer to [hobby you can talk about]." If the topic is interesting to you it is ok to say, "wow! I really don't know much about [thing] but it sounds fascinating! Tell me more!"

I have also found myself involved in the type of jerkoff quiz you describe. It is ok to say "I don't like being quizzed/I don't perform well under pressure." If you are not too stressed out you can always go for pulling up a fact you do know. "Isn't it interesting that Brasilia was founded in 1960 to be the capital?"

Being smart is about more than knowing all the facts ever. Do not get down on yourself for not knowing all the news about corruption in New Jersey city councils(?!). Really. There are only so many hours in the day. Nthing what everyone has said about asking questions. Intellectual curiosity is part of being smart!
posted by gembackwards at 11:46 PM on May 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have a couple little tricks.

I have a few smarty pants questions up my sleeve that I can use when I feel I am feeling dumb too often on a date.

For example, on Finance topics-

If someone is talking a lot about business and making money and the stock market... I wait a while and then say/ask: Do you know what I have never understood, why is it, exactly- that it is so hard to float tech companies on the European Market as opposed to the American Market?

Or, do you think that Ireland has been successful in becoming Europe's silicon valley?

Or, do you think that dark pools of liquidity are going to fracture the market?

Blink Blink. I get a lot of different answers, but I can navigate them all... you don't actually have to know very much to ask these questions and get an idea of the concepts behind them... and it leads the conversation into something that I feel more comfortable talking about.

A few greek quotes work a treat as well... you can ping those back on just about any topic if you memorize one for each of the following topics:

-people being greedy
-people being stupid

Most things fall under those categories-

A person talks about architecture/art whatever (beauty quote)

Political gaffe/embarrassing episode from the 1960's (people being stupid quote)

So for example- Mr Smartypantsannoying starts talking about corruption on the New Jersey City Council.... you just ping back with:

As Socrates said- “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” It's such a pity that greed seems to be so pervasive....

A smart person will never make you feel stupid, and talking about commodities and restaurants on a date sounds pretty show-offy to me.... that would have turned me off big time. And you would be VERY surprised how little some of these people actually know...

I have accompanied a couple of guys to dinners a few times, and they used the same "impressive" stories and topics at each dinner.
posted by misspony at 11:54 PM on May 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

Nthing asking questions as a response to someone wanting to talk about a subject where you have little or no knowledge. If it's something you genuinely don't have much interest in it helps to look at it as being curious about your conversation partner's thoughts and opinions rather than about the subject itself.

I actively avoid the news and quite often people will ask me "Did you see the story about (politics/crime/scandal/whatever)?" My response used to be "Sorry, I don't watch the news" which comes across as condescending and shuts down the conversation. So now I say something along the lines of "Sorry, I haven't seen that. Why don't you give me an overview for context and then tell me what you think about it?"

I'm sure you are a smart person. You will come across as such if you are comfortable admitting the gaps in your own knowledge rather than if you try and cover them up.
posted by neilb449 at 11:59 PM on May 31, 2014

I think you are catastrophizing things.

First you say “and considering that I have yet to be in a relationship, it is a pressing concern” yet I distinctly recall a former post where you talked about a boyfriend, and later in this post you mention “Looking back, I realize that most of my longest-lasting relationships were with men who were less smart than me.”

So yeah. To be blunt, I think you are blowing everything out of proportion. It seems like you read some random article and FREAK OUT and think it applies to you. Like the thread when you said you were poor and needed medical care, but wouldn’t accept Medicaid, and linked to some random article about hipsters getting food stamps.

I don’t watch Mad Men, and if people start discussing it, I certainly don’t feel like a “creepy silent idiot” if people talk about Mad Men. It’s just a tv show I don’t watch. What in the world makes you think you’re creepy because you don’t watch Mad Men? I just don’t get it.

I did see “Grand Budapest Hotel”, but I also saw “Neighbors”, and it isn’t like either of these events made me a better or more interesting person. I don’t know shit about casinos or other city’s city councils or any of that other stuff. There’s only so many things you can know about, ya know?

I just get the feeling that you are spending tons of time on the internet, and seeing all these articles and tweets and instagrams and whatever and feeling like I have to know everything, the internet told me so!!!

I’m sure you know lots of things- most people do. Most people, when on a date, will choose topics that both people can chat about. If your date picked several of the most random-ass topics I have ever heard of, and expected you to comment, than he was the bad date, not you.
posted by aviatrix at 12:18 AM on June 1, 2014 [35 favorites]

It's usually quite obvious when people are just trying to seem smart or to fit in. Just be authentic. If you don't know about something, it's OK to say so. If your opinion is from a half-remembered magazine article, it's OK to admit that. (Or to say "you know, i think i read about X and it didn't sound very appealing. What did you like about it?) Then you can ask real questions about the topic and the other's views and have a real conversation. They might not think you're a genius, but they will probably think that they enjoyed speaking with you.

And if you really want people to think you're smart, admire their intelligence.
posted by windykites at 12:20 AM on June 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to threadsit but it's less that he "picked" those topics than that the conversation just sort of went there. I rarely have much control over where conversations go and if I do it's really forced, kind of like the "job interview"-y vibe people don't like.
posted by dekathelon at 12:28 AM on June 1, 2014

If I've heard of something, or I read about it, but not in depth, and someone asks me what I think about it, I say, "Which [X] is that again?" or "Refresh my memory." It gives them a chance to talk about their opinion (which is probably why they asked), and it gives me time to think about it.

Saying "I don't know" is a greater sign of intelligence than it might seem.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 12:55 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm really having a difficult time thinking of a scenario in which quizzing someone about exhaustive minutiae of any topic outside of fairly rarefied professional contexts isn't either a dick move or the prelude to a dick move. Generally, if you're not arguing with your paleobotanist colleagues whether fossil palynomorphs from the Precambrian are more crucial to the future of the field than those of the Holocene, someone asking for a profile of your knowledge with that sort of specificity is at best weird and at worst just shitty.

I wonder, too, whether you may be mistaking what sounds for all the world to me like superficial fact-sniping for actually being widely read and deeply engaged. People like to talk about themselves; when they ask you about a movie you haven't seen, say "I haven't gotten around to seeing that - didn't look like my cup of tea. Have you seen it? What did you think?"

I eventually learned (and sometimes even act as though I learned) that smart doesn't mean full of trivia. It means able to integrate new information with some facility and (one hopes) some grace. Extract yourself from passive-combative conversations with trivia monkeys; go find the people who are asking questions and ask some of your own.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 1:12 AM on June 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

You and I sound very similar- like we've had similar backgrounds, and have faced similar challenges.

Here are a couple of things that I would suggest you consider. They have helped me quite a bit with these kinds of social issues. I'm still battling this stuff too, though, so I know how you feel.

First, in your question, I think you seem aware that much of the "problem" here... if not most of it... or even all of it... exists in your own mind.
In your AskMe questions, have you noticed how often you put yourself down? In this question, you don't do it quite so directly, but you do call yourself overweight and stupid, in a way. Au contraire... I think you sound like a very thoughtful, intelligent person. Don't put yourself down like that. Squash those feelings and don't let yourself become the "stupid fat girl" in your mind, because you certainly aren't.

I feel like much of the challenge here is you feeling inadequate, or you feeling "ill-informed," when in reality, you probably aren't. In fact, many of the people you're interacting with probably haven't even given that a bit of thought. Everyone has awkward moments in conversations, everyone has things they aren't aware of or don't know much about, and since we're human, most of us are myopic enough that we don't really pay much attention to other people's mistakes.

And if you conversation partners really do consider you inadequate or ill-informed or "stupid," I don't think you want to spend any time with them anyway, as they're assholes.

Second, I think your last question ("how do I come off as if I'm smarter") is taking the wrong angle.
As others have mentioned, "coming off as smarter" really isn't the way to go. Thomas Jefferson had a great quote about this in some of his later writings.
The wise know their weakness too well to assume infallibility; and he who knows most, knows best how little he knows.
In other words, the truly wise person is someone who knows their limits and knows how to work with those limits.

In my experience, people respect colleagues or friends or companions who are willing to say "I don't know... tell me more about that!" Or, "that's not something I'm so good at, or familiar with, but I'd like to learn more!" Or even, "that's not something I know much about... and I'm not really interested in it."

The know-it-all, or the person who tries to "come off as smarter," as having all the answers, as being "educated," is someone who is actually a fool. It's someone who ignores their own weaknesses and tries to sweep them aside by putting up a veneer. You get at that in your question... I sometimes find myself doing the "oh yeah, I've heard about that," or "that sounds familiar" thing myself. It's a self-conscious, proud, facade-building sort of thing to say, right? It's an awful habit and it's something I have to work hard to stop doing. It comes out of my severe self-consciousness and my self-esteem issues I've battled my whole life. And it's hard, because saying "I don't know" makes that little voice in my head say "See? You really are inept!!!" But saying "I don't know" is the healthy, wise way to go in the end.

Anyway, be willing to know your limits and embrace them. If you want to expand your horizons, get out there and read and learn and find out more about the world, and start by learning about what interests you. But don't do it so you can come off as smarter. Do it so you can learn more about cool topics that you enjoy, and do it because you love learning.

Best wishes and keep fighting the good fight. It's not easy to overcome these kinds of challenges and I know all about it first hand. I'm rooting for you!
posted by Old Man McKay at 2:19 AM on June 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

Philosophy tends to emphasize a number of skills you might find useful. (It's not just in philosophy, but it's the field I know best.) You learn to spot bullshit. You learn how people much smarter than you can be totally wrong. (Some must be, as they disagree with each other.). You learn to hone in on where you're not understanding and how to ask the right questions to achieve understanding (if it can be had). You learn confidence in asking for clarification. (Corollary: you learn that quite often, lack of clarity in your own mind isn't your fault.)

Even if you have a bunch of facts between your ears (if that's where the mind is and where facts are!), these other sorts of skills are useful.

So: do some philosophy!
posted by persona au gratin at 3:16 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was at a guy's house once and he started quizzing me about world capitals. It would be funny if it weren't so loaded at the time.

Really? Really? Why on earth would you need to know a random assortment of world capitals? Why on earth would a guy on a date (or in a date-like context) find it appropriate to quiz you on them? I mean, I can speculate about why.

Frankly, these guys sound like total prats and I wouldn't last a minute in such a dating environment. Maybe it's a New York thing?

When you describe these conversations, what I'm thinking is "these are men who want to show off, who want to achieve conversational dominance, and who don't even know how to do that skillfully". They may know a bunch of statistics about some election, but they know jack shit about social skills. Because a conversation isn't a competition, it's a mutual game - if you're making conversational sallies and the other person is all blank-stare-and-vague-panic, you're doing it wrong. If someone can't talk about statistics about an election, or recite the imports of Estonia by the metric ton since the death of Stalin, you steer the conversation toward something they can participate in. If you don't, it's your fail, not theirs. (Seriously, if I went on a date and the only topics I allowed were feminist science fiction of the seventies and eighties, post-punk and the historical conditions that gave rise to the bildungsroman, I could make the other person feel dumb as muck too. But because I would be a girl talking about the humanities instead of a dude talking about Very Serious Political and Rockist Matters, I would quickly get shut down.)


But anyway. If I had to do this, I'd probably try two strategies:

1. Build a couple of areas of hyperconfidence about things that interest you but that are slightly status-y/obscure. So follow one particular political issue in great depth, really read up on one cultural thing, focus on one international issue that interests you. On a merely practical level, these things will have a sort of constellation of related issues and you'll pick up a little about those by osmosis. When in conversation, you'll be able to draw comparisons - "Oh, I'm not super into [Record Label] - but it sounds like what happened when [obscure label] did [thing] - have you heard about that?" (This is, I think, how most people fake things skillfully - by drawing parallels to things they do know about.) You'll be able to give related examples, ask questions based on comparing the two situations and also give the dude a run for his money. Sure, he knows all about start-up accounting regulations in metro New York, but you can switch the topic to [other boring financial thing] that he doesn't know about.

2. Compliments. When someone tells you about their expertise in underwater venture capital-seeking, act impressed and ask questions. "Oh, this is so interesting - tell me more" and "wow, that's so neat - how did you get interested in that?" At least some of the dudes you meet are going to enjoy being admired more than they enjoy having you tap dance about the world capitals. In the world of people with social skills, they would also seek a chance to let you show off about your areas of competence.

I bet that what is happening on these dates is that you are in competition headspace and you think that you should be winning the date by showing off your knowledge and proving that you too are smart. IME, this isn't the best strategy for common-or-garden straight dudes - they don't actually want to compete, they want to be admired. They want you to chime in and chirp and so on. My guess is that you're getting flustered and competitive, and that is bringing out their latent hostility/sexism/generalized crapness.

These guys sound like very so-so specimens of masculinity, but let's assume that right now you just want a starter relationship so you're willing to deal with their lack of social skills. So anyway:

Dude: Blah blah blah New Jersey legislature
You: That's a really good point. Do you think it's anything like [somewhat related example of something you do know about]?
Dude: No, blah blah blah
You: But what about [buzzword]?
Dude: Buzzword, blah blah blah

In short, you concentrate on asking intelligent questions, even if you have to fake them a bit. If you're dealing with a socially skilled dude, eventually he will let the conversation turn to your areas of interest and start filling the "you" role.

In a truly hostile situation, like with world capital dude, I'd be awfully tempted to turn it around and ask him what his rationale for "My Ideal Woman Needs To Know All The Capitals" is.

There have been several times lately when I have seen an answer on here that is so perceptive that I was really startled. And I thought "who wrote that?" and it was you! You're perceptive and smart, and I bet that when you're not caught up in a burst of anxiety and self-dislike, you're really fun to talk to.

I think the long-term answer here is to continue to work on your self-esteem and your interests. I remember reading such boring shit when I was trying to impress people in my twenties - stuff that had nothing to do with anything I cared about. And while I could sort of learn it for a while, I didn't retain anything because I had no real framework for it. And of course, I was trying to keep up with Interested Expert Dudes, and naturally I felt dumb and behind all the time.

These guys are sailing with the wind - they're talking about stuff that interests them and therefore they naturally find it easy to retain a lot of information about it. You'll always be scrambling unless you're also genuinely interested. It's a waste of your precious time.

Maybe this is a good moment to develop a couple of new interests - but make sure they are real interests and use them as a basis for your conversation. When someone talks about something, bring in your interests using questions and analogies.
posted by Frowner at 3:20 AM on June 1, 2014 [26 favorites]

Oh, also if you ask topical questions (Hm, he's talking about the city council, I will ask a question based on a half-remembered headline that I saw yesterday about the city council) you can really get people on the run - if your questions are topical and you don't say much about your own opinions, most people will assume that you know way, way more than you do and are just waiting for them to mess up.

If you don't know about something in conversation, focus on asking intelligent questions. If a guy is actually intelligent, he's going to recognize a good question and find it interesting that you ask. And there are some ways of thinking that generate intelligent questions - ask about how a historical event shapes something; ask what he thinks about the quality of the media coverage, whether it is misleading, etc; ask about how race/gender/class/economics impact whatever he's talking about. Ask who is doing the best reporting and why. Ask what the big controversy in the field is.

Dude: Blah blah Occupy Wall Street
You: Yes, it's a serious issue. What do you think of the media coverage so far?

Dude: Blah blah all these BANDS on this COOL RECORD LABEL and who produced each track on the most recent release
You: So, I've been hearing [Producer's] name a lot lately - what is his background? What was he doing before RECORD LABEL?

("I've been hearing [thing name] a lot lately" is a useful phrase. It suggests that you are out there having Serious Conversations with Serious People, etc etc.)
posted by Frowner at 3:34 AM on June 1, 2014

Unfortunately, there is no way to say "I know absolutely nothing about that, can we please not talk about this" without seeming rude and/or stupid

But who wants to say that? Then you end up still knowing absolutely nothing. "You know what, I have heard of X but haven't had time to read anything at all about it. But I am curious. Clue me in?" Nobody is fully up to speed on every topic, or even most topics. There's no shame in it.

As for the world capitals thing -- I am going to speculate a bit, based on some similar experiences: you are indeed quite intelligent, and this is indeed quite obvious to a lot of people. Some lesser sorts are made insecure, and will use it to bully, by, say, insisting on a geography quiz and tittering at wrong answers. Some will insist on a geography quiz as a sort of party trick to marvel at. Both are totally unfuckable, of course.

Odds are you didn't get stupid over the years, but have just dealt with a series of small minds. This sounds like other people's problem, not yours (except for the resulting anxiety).
posted by kmennie at 4:21 AM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

The easiest way to come off as intelligent is to not talk unless you know what you're talking about. Be patient, listen a lot, ask relevant questions, be humble about what you know.

And of course I don't know the capital of Cameroon or Djibouti or Uruguay off the top of my head, and every time I would say I didn't know, he would say things like "but it's so easy!" and look at me with this distinct contempt.

I was a geography bee champ and memorized all that stuff when I was 12 or so. I can hardly name any now. Unless you constantly reinforce those memorized lists with practice, they fade. Memorizing that list is something he works at. It's not a sign of being smart, it's a sign that knowing those capitals is important to him and he works at it. It might as well have been a list of baseball players or Pokemon cards.

I think the real problem here is that you're misreading the intelligence of other people. They're not as smart as you probably think they are.
posted by empath at 4:56 AM on June 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Actually, one way to both become more informed and appear not-stupid is to stop wishing : "I know absolutely nothing about that, can we please not talk about this" and start saying, "What? I had no idea. How does that work? Tell me more about that. Really, no kidding? Then what do they do? How do you know all this?" Added bonus: Dudes on dates will walk away thinking you were an amazing conversationalist when all you did was ask questions and listen.

Intelligence and smarts, I think, come from realizing the daunting scope and breadth of everything you don't know and being willing to learn. I think it's why some of the most specialized professions that require significant study and training, like law and medicine, send their people out to "practice" forever. I prefer to admit the things I don't know about and to either learn about them or to decline to learn about them to save space for things I'd rather have (like Honey Boo Boo. I did so well for so long not knowing about that.) Don't frame "ignorance" of pop culture or even more cerebral things as stupidity -- either exercise curiosity about it or be frank with why you don't know. For example, I haven't seen The Grand Budapest Hotel. I know it's a movie, probably kinda artsy, but I have no clue what it's about. I probably won't see it because I don't watch movies all that much and if someone judged me harshly for this, and actually told me I was stupid for not know what it's about, I'd probably just be all done with that person forever. And that's OK -- because knowledge about modern movies isn't what satisfies my curiosity. If you find yourself wondering about something random, follow that path.

Also, watch Jeopardy. The more you watch, the more you'll realize that you actually do know most of the answers, even if you can't think of them as fast as the contestants.

Oh, and that Occupy Wall Street guy was a dick. Wow, naming all the world capitals and being condescending about it -- now THAT is the way to solve all the problems facing the sustainability of the modern American lifestyle. Dismiss people like this. This is not intellect or wisdom, it's rote memorization and it's what pre-speech toddlers do when they sing Old McDonald Had A Farm. Value wisdom, intellect, curiosity -- these will enrich your life more than parlor tricks. When you're starting to worry and getting worked up that people will think you're not smart (I can't even say stupid, because a truly stupid person would not have written this question; it's like bad parenting, the ones who never even wonder if they suck at it are the worst), take this as your mantra; maybe even say it out loud until you feel brilliant: Illegitimi non carborundum.
posted by mibo at 5:07 AM on June 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've had similar-ish issues over the years, these days I get a lot of satisfaction out of finding out what other people do, what their ideas are, and so on. Doing this is actually a skill in itself I think. And you learn a lot this way as well!
posted by carter at 5:16 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree about being curious and asking questions rather than pretending to know all about the issues involved. But... if you're going to be in a relationship, they have to like you for you. There's no point in a successful first date if the person will later be put off by the fact that you don't care about the same things that they do. So my suggestion would be, don't worry about how they're perceiving you, as long as you feel like you're being yourself. You don't have to make them like you. You have to decide whether you like them. World capitals guy? Honestly, even if you had passed the test with flying colors, would you have then wanted to make out with him? If somebody is talking about stuff you don't care about enough to ask questions, just admit, "I don't really keep up with politics" or "I'm not interested in seeing that movie, I don't care for Wes Anderson." If somebody is treating you with contempt, don't let them do it until you cry. Just say, "You know, I'm not interested in this. This date is over."
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:48 AM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

During the date, the following topics were discussed: bankruptcy in the casino industry of Atlantic City; commodities trading in the restaurant industry; macro-level trends in advertising; corruption in New Jersey city councils.

This is a really random collection of news items. It's not surprising at all for someone to be unfamiliar with all or most of them. You pointed out that neither of you deliberately steered the conversation to those subjects, and it is hard to change a conversational trend without looking bossy. But honestly I think this is an unfortunate type of conversation to have on a date. Everyone else has made good points about being curious, asking questions and trying to make connections. I would add that the conversation should be more personal on a micro level. For instance, news items are fine but you can present them using personal language that creates some kind of picture and context: "I just read this article this morning; did you see it; what did you think?" Hopefully that would nudge the person into opening up a bit. I wouldn't want to leave that date without knowing how long they lived in New Jersey; whether they gamble or have worked in a restaurant; things like that.
posted by BibiRose at 5:49 AM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sounds like you had a date with a bit of a snob. Sorry about that.

You can't be expected to know everything about everything but intelligence isn't knowing facts & figures. It's taking what you know and joining it with new information to synthesize something else.

So "you don't know the capital of $country" turns into "but I thought the capital was in the north because of the trade routes".

Also following a logical sequence of cause/effect is helpful too. Project managers know this skill. They don't know everything but they know what makes sense, and extrapolate from what they do know. "Why would changing X cause Y? X typically causes Z." Stuff like that.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:13 AM on June 1, 2014

I think you should stop worrying about coming off smarter and focus more on coming across as you.

That mean simply owning what you like, what you are passionate about and the areas of your own expertise. You don't have to "prove" yourself to anyone, just "be" yourself.

I realize that this is easier said than done. Part of getting there, is simply getting comfortable about admitting what you don't know and and not caring what someone thinks about it.

I also think community organizing has some good rules that can be applied to dating. Big one is the 60/40 rule, which says you shouldn't be talking more than 40% of the time. The rest of the time, you should be learning about the person, by asking open ended questions.
posted by brookeb at 7:06 AM on June 1, 2014

I'm a terrible judge of intelligence in other people. That said, the experiences you report are inline with some things that I have experienced as a confirmed very smart person.

All day long I say 'I don't know, let's look that up,' or 'what/who else could I read about that?' Sometimes I get flak for it.

My focus is more about getting and synthesizing information. AskMe is there I come to share what I know, but most of the rest of my time is spent finding things out or mulling over them. Every few months I jot down everything I get asked for a week or so. Maybe I should take some time to record all the questions I ask.

But here's the biggest I think will serve you well - just keep practicing the art of conversation. The more people you talk to, and in the more settings, the easier it will be. Chat up the cashier if nobody is behind you in line. Ask for reccomendations at the bookstore. Listen to Diane Rheems (spelling escapes me) and Terri Gross and note their similarities and differences. They are both trying to get information. Then listen to radio lab or This American Life. Those shows are focused on giving you information.

Read critically. Engage with everything you consume. Form opinions about the quality of sources.

And maybe stop depending on facebook to tell you what is important to you. Seek out information that interests you on it's merits, rather than because other people care about it.
posted by bilabial at 7:18 AM on June 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think you're getting some good advice here (catastrophizing, ask questions, don't have to know everything, these guys were dicks). I was a smart girl too, and I feel you. I don't think becoming Encyclopedia Brown is your solution here though.

Consider this perspective: Dating is not about whether he likes you or if you passed some obscure quiz. It's about whether you like him. Dating is an experiment you are running to see who fits with you. Some dates are not going to go well, and this is good data to have. It helps you not to waste time trying to impress someone you don't want to be with.

Did you like economics guy? Did he welcome you into a conversation? Did he make you feel comfortable and happy? It doesn't sound like it. So, he's off the list! (It's entirely possible that he's wondering how he bombed that date so badly, going off on topics you obviously weren't into. What an alienating nerd I am, he may be thinking.)

Capital Cities guy: don't date anyone who sneers at you. How unattractive.

Rather than trying to measure up, experiment with these dates as puzzles: Can you find 5 things you like about them? Can you find 3 intriguing questions you want to ask them? Is there something happening on this date that makes you want to see them again? Do they measure up to your standards? Would you feel proud to introduce them to a respected friend? If the answers are yes, you're probably relaxed and smiling and they're getting a good sense of you.
posted by heatherann at 7:48 AM on June 1, 2014 [14 favorites]

Yep, I was just writing something similar to what heatherann just said. When I don't know anything about something someone's talking about (and/or decide I really have no interest in that thing pretty early on, but have to keep talking to the person), I treat it like an interview, asking follow-up questions, saying, "Oh cool," and just treating it like a game to keep the conversation flowing and find out more information, even if I don't care that much about the information I get. (It helps that interviews are part of what I do for a living, but still, anyone can take this approach.) That's my advice to you—try to treat it more like a game, with a lighter touch, and don't worry if you're not that interested in everything the other person has to say. If the conversation takes an interesting turn, you'll know it, and you can snap back into being genuinely engaged! And if least maybe you learned something or showed kindness to another person by listening to them for a while (even if the only reason they were talking about, say, restaurant-industry commodities-trading was to somehow impress you with their deep, manly knowledge of an industry, which, eh, whatever).

Also, my brother and other people I know have this way of politely saying, in a sort of detached way, "Oh, I haven't heard about that," which kind of makes you feel like a jerk for being a name-dropping asshole or caring whether someone knows all the bands on a given label. (And again, eh, whatever—I love music, and I definitely don't know which bands are on which labels. Who even cares?) Practice being completely honest about what you don't know in a polite, interested way, and anyone worth their salt is probably going to feel chagrined for their assumptions, not like you're the stupid one. Alternately, if you have a smartphone, you could even look up whatever it is on your phone to learn more on the fly ("Do you know a link?"), depending on the context of the conversation. If I really loved something and wanted to talk to you about it further, I'd wholly endorse your doing that.

Also? Looking back, all of those topics you didn't know something about seem like they must be knowledge from that guy's work. I was trying to think, "Who even knows about that stuff and has opinions about it?" and that's what I came up with. If so, he's the one being the boring one—the first rule is not to talk about work. If someone asks you about your work, you can talk about it, but it should not dominate the conversation. Honestly, that guy kind of sounds like a self-important bore.
posted by limeonaire at 8:01 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Everyone's definition of what makes someone seem smarter is different. Honestly, in your date example that guy does NOT come across as smart or well-informed to me. He comes across as boring (because I don't care about those topics) and a bit of a show-off. To be smart you don't have to care about finances or the business world or politics or other Very Important Topics... unless you are genuinely interested in those topics.

I know plenty of people who seem crazy smart to me whose favorite things in the whole world are reality TV or cat training or drinking wine or the cheese industry. Basically, these people have a hobby or pet interest and they really enjoy talking about it. They're not necessarily an expert either, but they do come across as having devoted quite a bit of their free time to exploring the topic/activity and thus forming lots of opinions and funny things to say about it.

The other thing that makes these people seem smart is that they can identify when their conversational companion is way out of touch with the topic and they adjust accordingly rather than let the other person drown in boredom or confusion or feelings of stupidity. To not be able to identify this makes someone seem aloof, tone-deaf, and socially dumb. So that's why your date didn't come across as smart to me - it sounds like he was way too clueless to actually notice that you weren't digging the topics and too careless to do anything about it.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:12 AM on June 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

In reverse order--why play the Quizmaster's game? I don't get stuck with these types very often, but when I do, I just fuck with 'em. I'd answer like I'm on Jeopardy or just answer Paris to every question. Men (and it's usually men) who do this usually have rather poor social skills, and no concept of how to flirt. Really, trying to win with these types isn't ever worth the trouble. Situations like this call for a touch of whimsy, esp. if you can't escape.

But your date--was he from New Jersey? A couple of those topics had made news recently--the casinos and the City Councils might even been related. And coffee prices have been rising, so maybe that also was in his news-brain. If you don't read a daily paper, you might just glance at Google News every day for the headlines. Don't wait for Facebookers to post or for Slate/Salon/Metafilter FPP to comment.

You can't say "Can we talk about something else, please?" without having another topic that you can segue into. To demand a subject change because you don't know anything just makes you seem ignorant and proud of it. He may well have been comfortable talking about something else, but if you aren't sending the conversational ball back over the net, then he's stuck. In my experience, plenty of men who seem to like to hear themselves talk also want to impress their female companion, so by asking smart-ish questions, you can steer the conversation around to something that's less like a Poli Sci 101 class and more like flirting.

And flirting is usually a woman's big advantage on a date. Charm is more about being interested than interesting. Flirting is a way to ease the other person into realizing that he can be relaxed with you--you're playful and open. I'm not saying that you have to toss your curls and breathe heavily, I'm just suggesting that a light tone and a bit of humor can inspire more fun than a recap of today's top stories.

I sincerely doubt that you need to prove you're smart. I'd gently suggest that you cut yourself a break or two, put your guard down a bit, and have some fun with yourself and with others. Once you're comfortable with having fun, you can work up to silly and then raucous and bawdy. But start with fun.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:31 AM on June 1, 2014

oh dekathelon, you are not a stupid girl. you are a very smart girl, i can tell just by reading your question.

how do you come off as smarter? i respectfully suggest that this is not an issue you should worry about, indeed, it's an advantage. by the time your adversaries realize that they are not dealing with a bumpkin, it will be too late for them. as far as your dates, it is up to them, not you, to perceive your value, who and what you are.
posted by bruce at 8:33 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds a bit like some of these guys are doing the obnoxious fake geek girl gatekeeping thing to you (geeky or not):

all of this is happening in a community primed to respond aggressively to newcomers, and particularly to female newcomers. Some of that comes out as direct aggression. Some of it comes more subtly, in the form of perpetually challenging or dismissing credentials. Thus, the new stratification of “real” vs. “fake” geeks, where “real” is conveniently identified as the more traditionally male dominated modes of engagement.

You don't need to prove your intelligence, as others have said. I, too, have noticed your username and look forward to your comments, because they are usually very insightful, intelligent, and articulate. I know that sometimes it's easier to communicate online because there's less pressure to respond in the moment, but even if that's a barrier for you, it's not one that erases your intelligence.

It's worth realizing that by pretending to know things you don't, you (paradoxically) risk coming across as less informed than you are. The smartest people I know are people who say, "No, I don't know anything about that -- tell me about it," the most and who ask the most questions in trying to understand new things. People who only want to talk about stuff they already know tend to be boring pedants, in my experience.

It's also ok (or at least, I do it!) to be honest about where you're getting your information from. "I haven't seen/read it, but I've heard a lot about it," is a perfectly intelligent response, as is, "Eh, not my thing."
posted by jaguar at 8:39 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

People who don't feel smart enough, especially women who don't feel smart enough, should read this.

You probably are (smart enough).
posted by alon at 8:45 AM on June 1, 2014

Everyone else has great advice. I just wanted to comment briefly on your aside about the "stupid girl" phenomenon.

There is a huge spectrum of intelligence in this world and it is approximately distributed between men and women. Men who complain about "stupid girls" do so because they privilege qualities other than intelligence when seeking out a partner (looks, most often, but it can be other things, like 'willingness to sleep with me despite the fact that I am an asshole.') They choose to spend time with people they don't respect, because that's more important to them than spending time with people they aren't attracted to. Intelligence is the thing they're willing to compromise on - although they won't do so without complaining about it.

Women, on the other hand, tend to seek out men who are smarter than they are - which to me seems like easily the more 'intelligent' choice. And yet, somehow, it leaves us with this bogus social script where women feel bad about themselves and men complain about having to suffer the burden of the company of unintelligent women.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:54 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I really appreciate all the advice, but I think I may not have expressed myself well? Actually, that is the problem. I don't express myself well, especially not verbally. And so even on subjects I know something about, I end up floundering, or the second I bring up the topic I realize that all I really know about it is a blog post that may not have been sourced well, and the details are fuzzy, and even as I talk about it I realize how uninformed and awful it sounds. It's shallow knowledge. But I only realize that when I open up my mouth and start going on about it. It's like the minute I start talking about something all my knowledge of it disappears, or more accurately I realize it was never there in the first place. It almost feels like I'm being gaslighted here - please trust me when I say that this is a real problem that happens all the time.

This isn't just a dating problem, either. (It happens a lot in job interviews, where the stakes are even higher for sounding stupid. I blew a job interview earlier this year when I started talking about something I didn't really know about and they called me on it. Probably blackballed from a lot of places due to that interview, actually.)
posted by dekathelon at 9:14 AM on June 1, 2014

How does one become more informed these days? I don't think I'm particularly uninformed about the world - I read news, and I try to keep up with the cultural conversation - but clearly what I'm doing is only informing me on a shallow level. How the hell does everyone else know what they're talking about all the time?

Well, I don't know about "all the time," but listen to more NPR. 90% of my conversations with smart, informed people include the phrase "I heard on NPR..." at some point.

Listen to Morning Edition in the morning while you're getting dressed, All Things Considered in the afternoon/evening while you make dinner, etc. NPR offers broad coverage, but with more depth, subtlety and nuance than most outlets. And you can listen while doing other things, so you don't have to create more time in your day. There are a ton of different ways to get NPR programming: streaming over teh interwebs, in podcast form, "on demand" through various websites and apps, and even with a transistor radio receiving actual FM signals from the aether.
posted by BrashTech at 9:22 AM on June 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Look, I don't really have an answer for you, because after reading about your date I thought "shit, I'm objectively smart, and I have absolutely no knowledge or interest in any of those topics." And the guy quizzing you about world capitals is just a prick.

Maybe you need to hang out with nicer people whose interests are more similar to yours?
posted by radioamy at 9:28 AM on June 1, 2014

There are so many ways to address this issue that are some combination of knowing more and being comfortable with knowing less; just pick a strategy and execute it. You won't recognize yourself in a month.

I do suggest to improve the quality of your sleep as it will aid retention and reduce the fogginess while speaking.
posted by michaelh at 9:35 AM on June 1, 2014

Hey, Formerly Gifted Child (tm) here. Reading your update reminded me of me, both the critiquing-one's sources and the cringe moment in an interview. But it's exactly that thing where you find yourself blathering on about something that is related to not being able to say you don't know something.

I don't know but I would guess you were rewarded for "I don't know how she knew that!" moments. What you learned as conversation though, wasn't exactly adult conversation, because in (most) adult conversation a) there is no referee giving out points/praise the way you got it growing up and b) exchange of information is not the only or even main goal, which is social.

If you learn to say "wow, I didn't know that" or "well I just read this one post and got this, is that right?" You come across as someone who has integrity - you are secure in what you know and don't know for real, rather than seeking intellectual points.

There are subcultures (academia, certain geek or tech groups) where that's not true. So it's ok to be aware you might need to code-switch. But those are minority cultures

Incidently I went to nerd school and have spent time with Nobel prize level giants as well as a lot of highly successful ppl due to my job. Out of my experience I just want to say integrity is sexy. Getting quizzed to see if you pass some kind of geek marker is not. The latter sounds like Gifted Kid thinking but...there is no smartness scorekeeper.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:41 AM on June 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

First, I agree with all the comments above. Beyond that, two things occur to me, now that you've mentioned the interview situation. One is, it's one thing to know the things you know - to absorb and organize that knowledge in your own idiosyncratic ways - and another thing to communicate that knowledge to others. It's not as easy, for some, to do this in real life & real time, vs. in an asynchronous communication setting like AskMetafilter, which gives you time and space to compose a response, free from cues that might trigger overarousal in a high-stakes, real-life setting.

So, two issues then: one is improving the skill of getting what you know across, and the other is managing your affective responses to interpersonal cues.

Are you an associative, divergent thinker? Like, do you sort of discover what you think as you write/think it? If so, maybe it would help, in those real-life situations, to take a moment to focus on what you think someone really wants to know when they ask you a question, or when you want to share a story or opinion. And then, take a moment to focus on what you want to say about it, and compose it, keeping the end goal in mind. It's ok to ask for time for this -- you can just smile and say something like, "ok, I just need a sec to put my thoughts in order, hang on [put them in order]. Ok, so..."

It seems that you're hyper-aware of and overwhelmed by lots of things going on in the situations you've described. I think there are probably some beliefs around some of those contexts, which others have touched on, that might bear exploring in a therapy setting. But I think a couple of things could help you at least a bit: 1) breathing deeply (underrated as a calming device) and 2) focusing your attention and intention on the flow of the conversation and the person you're speaking to, instead of letting your awareness move to a 3rd person perspective, or making assumptions about what the other person's thinking.

It's clear from your answers to others here that you have a lot to offer; I hope you find worthier people than those bozos you described to share it with.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:31 AM on June 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to pop in to say that I'm pretty wary of people who make vague statements about things that they claim to have read/seen/heard/watched. I respect far more somebody who is willing to acknowledge the limits of what they know and do not know... somebody who is able to ask good, pointed questions. Coming off as intelligent is not about having a gigantic Book of Knowledge or the Whole World Catalogue stored in your brain. It is about being able to come up with ideas, abstract information, and connect bits of knowledge. :) My advice is to just stay hungry, and to hang out with people who don't judge you on this kind of superficial crap.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 10:53 AM on June 1, 2014

It sounds like you tie your identity really heavily to your intellect so when you don't know these things, you go into panic mode and think "omg, I don't know what they're talking about, this makes me stupid, but I can't be stupid, I was a genius when I was a kid..." and on and on. What do you hope to gain out of being able to match wits on all these topics? What will change if you were able to talk about politics and finances and random "intellectual sounding" topics like your one date? Or how would it have been different if you were able to name off random world capitals?

How the hell does everyone else know what they're talking about all the time?
They're probably BS-ing you. Seriously. The human brain has only a certain capacity for knowledge and everyone who claims knowledge on limitless subjects is certain to be BSing you at least some of the time. They're just better at faking their way through conversations than you or even outright dropping made-up facts to sound smart. (And, man, are those people tiring to talk to. I sat through a half hour "history lesson" filled with erroneous facts by someone like this before. That's a half hour of my life I never got back....) Did you fact check the guy you went out on a date with when you went home? If there were not at least SOME errors in what he said on the subjects, I would imagine that these are topics he focuses on and reads a lot about in his every day life. (But I bet you'd find some errors, because he's only human like the rest of us and I think he may have just been trying to sound "impressive" by his choice of topics, honestly.)

... every time I would say I didn't know, he would say things like "but it's so easy!" and look at me with this distinct contempt. Maybe it was imagined. I don't know. It eventually got bad enough to make me cry, and only then he stopped.
He was being an arrogant jerk. You don't need to condemn yourself for not meeting random people's arbitrary standards of "knowledgeable." Be gentle with yourself and if another person cannot respectfully participate in the conversation, then walk away.

It's okay to not have something to say about everything. It's okay if you don't know. It's okay if you forgot. It's okay if all you know about said topic is from a short blog post. But be up-front with whoever you are speaking with. "I think.... (such and such thing)." "I'm not sure, but isn't it like.... (such and such thing)?" "Do you mean....(such and such thing)?" Conversations are not supposed to be a war against one's intellect (unless you do like rigorous debates). For me, good conversations are a meeting of the minds, a sharing of different perspectives, an exchange of information and viewpoints. Every conversation does not need to end up feeling like "damn, I really blew it on Jeopardy today." I can't imagine how exhausting that must feel! Does it feel like you're letting yourself down when you don't know these things?

I wish you had more compassion for yourself and for your human limitations. I think maybe it might worth your while to investigate why you feel the need to know so many things just to have a conversation with someone. Or why and how your intelligence as a child still holds sway in your adult view of yourself. I think you are making life harder than it needs to be for yourself and only you can figure out the reason why.

So if you want to come off smarter - read a newspaper headline and challenge yourself to internally monologue about it for a couple minutes, without stopping, without regard for the veracity of what you are saying. If you want to rid yourself of the frustration caused by being "uninformed", there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but I would start by looking inward first.
posted by sevenofspades at 11:06 AM on June 1, 2014

I really appreciate all the advice, but I think I may not have expressed myself well? Actually, that is the problem. I don't express myself well, especially not verbally. And so even on subjects I know something about, I end up floundering, or the second I bring up the topic I realize that all I really know about it is a blog post that may not have been sourced well, and the details are fuzzy, and even as I talk about it I realize how uninformed and awful it sounds. It's shallow knowledge. But I only realize that when I open up my mouth and start going on about it. It's like the minute I start talking about something all my knowledge of it disappears, or more accurately I realize it was never there in the first place. It almost feels like I'm being gaslighted here - please trust me when I say that this is a real problem that happens all the time.

I know how this feels. I think that it is mostly an artifact of nervousness, though. Not so much because you necessarily really have the knowledge and are too freaked out to use it but because you get too freaked out to use what you do have. So, for example, you have a shallowly sourced blog post - when you're nervous, you lead with too strong a statement, can't back it up and can't remember enough details anyway. When you're not nervous, you can remember to frame - "I'm really interested in THING - I read [shallow blog post] the other day which made me wonder [whether that is accurate/about a certain aspect]." Then you either segue to a question for them or you say "...because [shallow blog post] reminded me of [thing you really do know], so I was speculating that..."

If you have shallow information, talk about the shallowness of the information. Use it to generate questions, or use it to talk about the framing of the issue. This is useful for job interviews, too. (It is likely that rando dudes just had shallow information themselves on a lot of those topics.)

Do you have access to any community ed or library-run discussion groups? I've found that these have helped me (because they are so low-stakes) to be able to pull my thoughts together.

If you have a place where you can do it that you won't sound like a loon, try talking to yourself. I sometimes find that it helps me to think when I'm actually talking to an imaginary conversation partner.
posted by Frowner at 11:16 AM on June 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think this episode of the Freakonomics podcast may be of interest: The Three Hardest Words in the English Language
posted by radioamy at 11:52 AM on June 1, 2014

Personally, I'd be more inclined towards saying something about how while that sounds interesting, I was hoping to learn more about ~you~, perhaps in a slightly flirtatious tone. I don't go on dates to have debates about politics, economics or the like, I go on dates to get to know ~people~. It's nice to have an idea about what they're interested in, but in-depth debates/lectures about a particular arcane topic seems odd to me. Maybe I'm just old school.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, by all means, ask questions. People love to hear themselves talk, they love to educate, and they love to ride their hobby-horses. If their interests aren't your own, just don't date them again. Dates really aren't about oneupsmanship, after all.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 12:10 PM on June 1, 2014

The thing about being a good communicator is that it depends on the audience. You may have a perfectly reasonable strategy that works for two thirds of the people you talk to. It might just be a case of needing a few backup strategies.

For interviews, it helps to practice. You can probably predict a good 10 or 15 questions they're likely to ask you. Jot down the main points you want to be sure to say, and practice with a friend. Try a few different ways of answering each question.

I also find it helps to have 3 or 4 main reasons I think they should hire me, and I try to circle back to them in my interview answers.

If you don't know the answer it is perfectly allowable to say that you don't know, but that you do know related facts XYZ and that you would find the answer using methods ABC. It's also fine to take a moment to compose your thoughts and to write down some notes if you find that helpful.

If you're not sure if you got through, you can ask "Does that answer your question, or is there a part of it you'd like me to talk some more about?"

Is there a friend you could ask for an outside perspective on this? Sometimes I get nervous that I come off as this incredibly harsh person and no one likes me, and left to my own analysis that's what seems true but my friends have a more balanced perspective than my nervous brain does.
posted by heatherann at 12:58 PM on June 1, 2014

Oh, hello. I'm a fellow intelligent person who often manages to sound like a bumbling dumbass in conversation. (For different reasons, which are probably not relevant.) Some ideas:

1. If you want to work on something, try to improve your memory. You sound as smart and informed as the next person, if not more; you've probably read what those world capitals are before, you just didn't retain that information. There are various methods that claim to improve your memory. I've never tried any personally so I cant vouch for them, but it might be something to look into. So often, in my experience, what people associate with smartness is really just the ability to recall facts, especially trivia like numbers and statistics.

2. Ask intelligent questions. Watch a bunch of news shows where an interviewer questions an expert. The interviewer will have done research beforehand but the questions can't be too insider-y sounding because then the audience won't understand them. So they're often rather basic. "Can you explain more about that?" You can ask things like "Are city councils in New Jersey more corrupt than those in other states, do you think?" This helps if you have a basic understanding of as many topics as possible, so do read the news and blogs and so on. But it doesn't require any real expertise, just mild awareness. If you know nothing about the topic AT ALL, you can ask questions like "How did you learn so much about this?" Or "why do you find this interesting?" People generally like to talk about themselves, so turn his weird interest into a question about him as a person.

3. Have the confidence to change the direction of the conversation. That doesn't have to mean forcing him to discuss a topic of your choosing. It can simply consist of saying "Goodness, you know a lot about New Jersey." Or in the case of world capitals guy (who really sounds like an ass) "What do you do, just sit home and memorize this stuff on weekends?" Or "That's it, dude, you totally win the cocktail party, congratulations. I'm going to get a canapé now, if you'll excuse me..." I often completely forget that this is an option! But it is. (Though not in job interviews, obviously.) And in the case of a know-it-all, this actually makes you sound smarter, because although you may not know all the factoids, you know better than to play his game.

4. Work on the way you say things. What you're saying is probably fine, but if you tend to be hesitant, giggly, etc, it can make the exact same statement sound less smart. Try to imitate the way someone who's super smart, someone you admire, would say "I've never heard of that" or "Who is he? I'm not aware of his work." Probably with curiosity and confidence, but not shame.

5. When you don't know something, you will nevertheless usually come off as smart if the reason you don't know it is that you know so much about something else that's somewhat related. "I admit I don't know much about New Jersey politics. I'm very involved with following New York politics/national issues/international affairs and I tend to get focused on that."

6. Keep in mind that in conversations, half the work should be on them too. Boring your date to tears (or literally making your conversation partner cry with quizzes!!) means these guys might know stuff but they have totally failed How To Behave 101. There's only so much you can do, or ask of yourself. You can do your part but you can't always drag a terrible conversationalist out of a hole.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

It becomes a question of what you consider conversation to be, social lubricant or point scoring. Social lubricant is why we dwell on weather and gossip, and if we’re talented, amusing anecdote. It’s just noise, and everyone can join in. How about that Local Sports Team? Did you hear about Dr. Kilborn running off with his nurse?

A certain kind of college educated type (or not even) prefers conversaton as point scoring. Which requires Knowing Things.

Problem is, you cannot Know Everything, or even close, and if you know widely, then probably it will not be deeply and vice versa. Journalists (from whom non-journalist poseurs tend to receive their wisdom) are past masters at making quick-cribbing seem plausible. (Which is a good reason not to put too much stock in the actual opinions of journalists, BTW.) When real expertise is required, the Fifth Estate has to ferret out those people who have spent their entire careers in Military Hardware, Olive Cultivation, International Bond Trading, Art Forgery, whatever, and ask them putatively intelligent questions. Give them any other subject and depend on it, said experts will be faking it with the best of us.

To your question – lose the reluctance to admit ignorance. I confess ignorance all the time. It’s a huge advantage, both socially and (forgive me) intellectually. It means I can tap other people’s expertise and experience, which, being unfamiliar to me, is far more interesting to me than my own. I don’t really care if they think I’m pathetically ignorant (nobody can know everything again), though in fact I suspect their egos are sufficiently stoked by genuine curiosity and the chance to show off that it never really comes up. (“What a clever fellow to want to know about Military Hardware, Olive Cultivation, International Bond Trading, Art Forgery. And intelligent enough to ask me. Clearly the workings of a fine mind there.”)

Of course this is less interesting when the talking points clearly originated elsewhere, but then the game becomes figuring out where the show-off got his stuff.

Read widely for your own edification, but don’t expect to be tested on it. You’re out of school. This is supposed to be the fun part.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:24 PM on June 1, 2014

I think one thing that helps is to be totally secure in your intelligence. So be confident about your opinions, and if you don't know about something just act secure about it, and ask questions, and take it as an opportunity to learn instead of pretending to know.

One way to go about having this confidence is to develop a stronghold in ONE AREA - so I am only this secure about asking people what words mean, or about movies I haven't seen because I had a good academic record growing up, and know a lot about a few topics. Learning about everything overnight is neither interesting nor valuable, really. It's better to learn about things you are interest and develop personal opinions about it. And then everything else you can learn about by asking questions! That makes for a better conversation and if the other person really likes the subject they will find it fun to explain. If they don't, well, you'll be able to tell, and then you can change the subject to something that's actually fun.

It's more about how you think rather than what you know! And everyone is a great thinker in their own way and have lots to offer. So just believe that you're smart, and be interested in learning about new things.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 2:42 PM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Being concerned with appearing smart tends to be a product of insecurity, and many people above have given you great advice about the healthy way to start to deal with that insecurity.

Here's the unhealthy way:

1.) Talk only about things you know a lot about (world capitals, for example). When the conversation goes in a direction you may be unfamiliar with, steer it toward something you know of.

2.) Challenge the claims of the people you're talking to if they show the slightest hesitancy on details (like the number of candidates in a local election or the albums produced by a given record label). Gloat when they say they don't know.

3.) Confidence confidence confidence. Numerous studies have confirmed that people are more likely to believe a fact if it is expressed confidently. Hell, people are more willing to reconsider something that they know for a fact is false if a figure of authority tells it to them with confidence.

4.) Piggybacking on #2, if the person you're talking to has an equal level of ignorance about something as you and is therefore unable to refute your claims, act as if You Are Right and express your opinions more confidently than they express theirs. They have no means of contradicting you.

5.) Talk fast. It takes far more effort to refute bullshit than it does to produce it, so throw it out as quickly as you can without compromising #3. Make up statistics on the spot to back your arguments (for example, the average number of participants in an Occupy camp). Just because it's a number doesn't mean it has to be true.

6.) Be male. Pre-existing cultural stereotypes work to the advantage of males and to the disadvantage of females when it comes to perceived intelligence.

The guys you mention may be as insecure about their intelligence as you are about yours. They seem to have done some combination of the above things, and as a result, appeared smart. But here's the thing: you have no idea whether or not a person actually is smart based on a single conversation.

What you can find out from a single conversation is if a person loves monologuing at people who offer no meaningful response to their opinions, or worse, shame people for not knowing trivia. And these are good things to find out early on about someone because you now know to avoid them in the future.
posted by Ndwright at 3:03 PM on June 1, 2014

And so even on subjects I know something about, I end up floundering, or the second I bring up the topic I realize that all I really know about it is a blog post that may not have been sourced well, and the details are fuzzy, and even as I talk about it I realize how uninformed and awful it sounds. It's shallow knowledge.

Unless you are actively teaching someone else, most conversations are not about exchanging knowledge, they are about exchanging opinions/analyses/speculation.

It does not at all matter if your memory of the blog post, or the blog post itself, is shallow. Smart people use shallow information as a means of jumping into interesting analysis of whatever phenomenon the shallow blog post inspired them to think about. I've had interesting conversations with Ivy League grads about stupid television shows, because we had interesting and personal things to say about them.

People who want to prove they are smart focus only on facts. People who are actually smart tend to focus more on analysis and interpreting and conjecturing. (I can't remember now if I read this someplace else or came up with it on my own, but my father's blue-collar family's emphasis on spelling bees as proof of intelligence, vs. my white-collar family's realization that being able to remember how to spell words is a skill, but it's not the same as being smart, is a good example. Memorizing world capitals as an adult is the equivalent of winning a spelling bee -- it's a flashy skill, but it says nothing about one's intelligence.)

Your recent comments on the Blue show that you are fully capable of that sort of analysis and interpretation and conjecture. It sounds a bit like you're tripping yourself up by panicking about whether you have your facts straight, and that's keeping you from going to the next (more interesting) step. Working on alleviating your anxiety in general would probably be the most helpful intervention here; you've already got the skills and smarts, you need to stop getting in your own way.
posted by jaguar at 8:20 PM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

"You have no idea of the burden you relieve yourself of when you stop feeling the need to hold opinions on topics you know nothing about."

- approxiquote from Christopher Hitchens (I think?)
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:54 PM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree with everyone that you are obviously smart and quite skilled with words, and that these situatuons with these dudes sound like they were being jerks, or maybe you misread the situation, or maybe they were nervous and trying to fill the time with things they felt confident about.

I've been in dating situations where someone will mention that they like American History and then I'll ask a bunch of questions about General Sherman or something and they'll mumble "maybe I don't know that much" and I realize I was unintentionally being a jerk while trying to make a connection. Whoops.

Also, a weird reco: I think improv classes could help you think on your feet and quickly, and be able to keep up a narrative in ways that are interesting and interactive with other people. I think improv can be great for interpersonal skills. There are a ton of classes in the city - try the PIT and Gotham City Improv, I think they have cheaper classes than Upright Citizens Brigade if cost is a concern.
posted by sweetkid at 9:12 PM on June 1, 2014

Okay, so I'm a librarian. I get asked all kinds of questions about things I know nothing about, as well as the ones I do know (like where the toilets are). My guiding principle is that I don't know everything, but I know how to find things out. I think that's actually a more useful skill. That's just to try to convince you that you don't need to know EVERYTHING, whether it's all the facts about a particular record label or the capitals of all the countries in the world (did you know that there's actually a lot of difficulty in determining what a country is?)

You are smart, you can communicate. You sound like you are being hampered by your anxiety to prove that you are smart. I don't have the answer for how you stop being anxious because I don't know you that well. But maybe think about how you can affect situations with an eye to reducing your anxiety levels. For example, for a job interview, do lots of research about the company, make notes about the types of topics that are likely to come up in the interview and some bullet points to remember; some examples of times you have displayed X skill or used Y knowledge. (If having to remember all the things on your notecards makes you more anxious, just disregard.)

For a date, prepare with the goal being making yourself feel comfortable - not just impressing him. Wear something that makes you feel good, that you feel like you look pretty/sexy/curvy/emphasises your eyes/hair/smile/whatever. Don't wear clothes in which you feel uncomfortable or awkward. You need to feel special. And you are! If it makes you feel better, have a list of topics that you can bring up if the conversation needs changing or he asks you a direct question about your interests.

And ask your friends to help! Pretend you are on a date and practice following the conversation and gently steering it. We can tell you what to say for particular scripts, but real life isn't as neat as that and you need to build your confidence so that you can deal with the conversation wherever it goes.

Just adding my vote to those above: all the dates you've described sound like complete loser dates with whom you are better off without. Part of dating is working out whether you have anything in common to talk about and if all someone could talk about was [had to go and look it up because it was so boring I couldn't remember] bankruptcy, commodities trading, political corruption and advertising, I'd be not only ignorant but bored and making leaving motions pretty damn quick. If you are interested, ask. If you're not, it doesn't mean you're stupid.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:36 PM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a good layperson's knowledge of a number of areas, and I keep abreast of current events. I would have no idea about corruption in either New Jersey casinos or its legislature; it's too local. I know what "macro-level trends" might mean when applied to advertising, but I know no specifics. The same goes for "commodities trading in the restaurant industry". I don't think one person in a thousand could have intelligent opinions on all four of those subjects simultaneously. If your date did have intelligent opinions on them, it's because he happens to know a lot about those subjects. Me, I know a lot about a few different subjects, but I would never start quizzing a random stranger on them: they're my interests, not theirs.

You acknowledge that you have a problem with seeming more well-informed than you really are. I think that's why your interlocutors are getting into these esoteric subjects: you're in a mutual death spiral where every response calls for one that is more tightly focused on the subject. You can't possibly seem as well-informed as your date on every subject they happen to bring up, and no reasonable person would expect you to. I suggest that your dates will keep the conversation on a more general level and/or switch the subject if you express no more than mild interest. If you're interested in a subject then raise questions; if you're not, respond in generalities. You're there for a social evening, not an interview.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:10 AM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

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