I just need to *sound* smart
September 13, 2014 3:03 PM   Subscribe

All of a sudden, I've found myself in more challenging academic circumstances, surrounded by more advanced students and really incredible faculty (yay!). But, I'm constantly afraid that what I have to say is dumb. How do I address that so that I'm not afraid to start participating?

I'm not as worried about the presentation of what I say - I'm taking formal public speaking classes right now and I'm working to improve the mechanics of my speech. Moreso, I feel like the problem is that all I have to say is "I thought that was really interesting..." and "oh, yeah, that makes sense."

Unlike other students, I worry that I don't have the background knowledge (or the intelligence?) to draw sophisticated comparisons or do deep analysis. I'm a new student in the program I'm in and much younger than most (basically all) of the people I'm around. Usually, I'm a talkative person and I'm very outgoing in social situations, so feeling uncomfortable talking (or emailing, or posting) is a weird sensation.

I suspect part of the problem is that I've never been in so many places where I'm conversing about academics - usually my most sophisticated thinking is demanded for papers, where I usually come to like what I have to say. I don't (usually) think that I'm actually not capable of the same level of thinking, because I do understand what other people have to say pretty quickly. I just don't know how to respond, and it's giving me a lot of insecurity.

This is coming up in many situations - class, interviews, casual conversation - and it's really holding me back. Is this common? Are there ways to sound "smarter"? Are there phrases to keep in my back pocket when I can't whip out anything truly insightful? Any other advice?
posted by R a c h e l to Human Relations (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Unlike other students, I worry that I don't have the background knowledge (or the intelligence?)

Um, this is called Imposter Syndrome, and is one of many things you doubtless have in common with your fellow students.
posted by feral_goldfish at 3:30 PM on September 13, 2014 [13 favorites]

In class, asking for more knowledge is the whole point. Don't focus on "sounding smart." Focus on being smart and ask the questions you need to to not let anything go over your head. Whenever you want to ask something, there might be someone just like you who also wants to know but is to shy to ask. Don't be the guy who's too shy. And even if there isn't, the people who your questions might annoy are not the kind of people you should spend too much time trying to impress. Asking questions is a virtue. It shows you're paying attention, and good professors - or friends, or bosses, or whomever - will recognize that.

Don't let a performance - of knowledgeability or intelligence - get in the way of learning.

In terms of a way to ask questions, just be polite and brief. "I think I'm missing some background here. What do you mean specifically when you say that..." Pay attention to the way people around you ask questions. Mimic things you like and avoid things you don't. If you have a private moment with a professor, say that you're coming in a little greener than some of the other students, and you're sorry if you're ever asking to many questions. They'll be extremely understanding.
posted by Rinku at 3:44 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I feel like the problem is that all I have to say is "I thought that was really interesting..." and "oh, yeah, that makes sense."

Actually, these are great things to say. Especially if you're mostly saying things for the sake of getting used to saying things. (Bear in mind that not showing off is not actually a bad thing, and your colleagues may actually find it refreshing that, when you don't have anything that needs saying, you leave the talking to others.) To make these sentiments contribute to a discussion, try working through your intuitions a bit more, in your head: why was that so interesting, or how does it feel meaningful that that makes sense? E.g. what is the background assumption that it challenges? What's at stake, intellectually or politically or practically or whatever?
posted by feral_goldfish at 3:50 PM on September 13, 2014

Around five years into grad school, I was surprised when some third years confessed how much I'd intimidated them in their first year, before they realized what a non-judgmental softie I really was. I shouldn't have been surprised: I spent my own first year in constant doubt, and with good reason, because I am certain I said plenty of dumb things. I mean, I remember some of them, and they actually were dumb things to say, ignorant of all kinds of issues and nuances in my field. But I didn't hold that stuff against others when I saw it happening later, and I suspect you're getting the benefit of the doubt too.

If you really want to go down the path of scaring the crap out of future first years, this will do it: nerd out on one extremely narrow topic (e.g. one famous thinker), and nerd out on the works/perspective of one faculty member in your department from their first publication to their most recent. I don't mean hammer people over the head with what you're studying--don't be zealous or push a point or whatever--but study it so intently you're ready to quote the texts verbatim and steal phrases from them shamelessly when you think someone would genuinely like to hear it. Within a few months, you'll be the person others defer to in that domain, and you'll be contributing as appropriate while feeling comfortable deferring to and/or admiring the contributions of others.

Meanwhile, be a good listener and try to be liked for other reasons, e.g. because you're kind, you're fun to hang out with, you're willing to ask the dumb questions others won't, and you have interesting things to say about personal experiences others haven't had. If people like you, know you care about what they have to say, and see signs that you're learning, they'll think you're smart too, if only as a halo effect. You don't actually need to intimidate anyone with clever phrases or amazing insights to be appreciated for your thoughtfulness.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:52 PM on September 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you have time to prepare for these situations, looking up what others have had to say about the reading/author/topic can be very helpful. You don't want to just regurgitate what you find, though you might realize that your classmates are essentially doing just that, which in itself can be a confidence-booster. If so, as smart as your classmates' responses might sound to you, your professor is probably quite familiar with what they're saying, and knows who said it first. In any case, you need to spend time before the discussion not just reading the assignment, but thinking about it just like you would if you had been assigned an essay. In fact, it might help to actually outline your ideas as if you were going to write about them. Then you'll sound prepared because you actually are!

Essentially though, you already have the basis for engaging in these conversations on the level you want, you just need to follow through (in the sports sense, like continuing to swing the bat even after the initial contact with the ball). "That's really interesting, and makes me think of..." or "That makes a lot of sense. I wonder how it relates to..." are great ways to keep the discussion rolling while opening up new avenues of conversation that you're interested in exploring. Sometimes you probably will say silly things, and that's okay. Your goal is to say enough thoughtful/well-reasoned stuff (and ask enough thoughtful questions) that no one cares about or even remembers that time you mixed up two Kings George (or what have you). Keeping quiet most of the time just ups the stakes.
posted by teremala at 3:59 PM on September 13, 2014

don't try to be something that you're not. trying to sound smart can backfire in fairly spectacular ways. maybe it will just take a while to learn the culture and vocabulary of whatever program you're in. just don't get bogged down in that vocabulary. i'm in a field where i have to constantly hear the buzzwords of each new class of grad-school converts and it's frankly annoying and off-putting. people who know, know and those who don't fall back on lingo. no one likes a poseur.

you can't fake smarts, and unless you're in a deep-science field where your speech has to be rigorously constructed and constrained, plain speech is still the best way to convey even the most complex of thought processes. there are no dumb questions. well, there are but they're the ones being asked by people who didn't do the reading and didn't pay attention in lectures or by people who just want to show off. ask questions, take copious notes (by hand) and do everything in your power to wring the last bits of knowledge from every person and situation you encounter. the most valuable skill to be gained from higher education is the process of learning how to learn, i.e. how to ask questions, do research and how to apply curiosity across the board so that every situation is a learning opportunity. hopefully, you're there for yourself and not to impress others.

anyone who knows a subject well can spot a faker the instant they open their mouth.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 4:03 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Fake attempts to sound smarter will just make you come off as really obnoxious.

What you really want is to sound interested and engaged, ideally by genuinely being interested and engaged. Ask questions, do relevant reading and thinking, ask more questions, and then ask even more questions.

It's easy to rationally think things through and realize "Oh, everyone is here to learn, and I'm not the only one feeling overwhelmed" and much harder to really FEEL that. I think making strong connections with a study buddy or two can really help with that. It can also give you a small/safe environment for practicing discussing ideas, so that you feel more comfortable doing it with people who intimidate you more. But really, seriously, do not let yourself stay isolated.

Also, if you have halfway decent instructors, they will appreciate questions in class, as will the other students, and if you really are lacking in background somehow, they can point you to resources to help you get caught up.
posted by ktkt at 4:25 PM on September 13, 2014

Key sentence to learn: "to build on [the author's/ a fellow student's] point..."

It's another way to say "that's interesting", but one that forces you to engage with the ideas you find interesting.
posted by Milau at 5:14 PM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sometimes, I speak up in class to restate things others have said, to be sure I understand them ("So what you're saying is [blah], right? "). Restating a point more concisely is essentially just saying, "I get it!" but in a potentially more useful way.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:23 PM on September 13, 2014

You're suffering from imposter syndrome!

One of the things that makes my fellow students sound smart to me: Questions. Being smart is different than having knowledge. In my program, we have diverse backgrounds and theoretical outlooks, and that means that during discussions we often are actually on very different footing. (Some of us will be more familiar with the topic under discussion than others.)

It's not the people who always know what's going on that impress me. It's the people who ask good questions. If they don't know what's going on, they figure out why, and ask about that thing. (Not familiar with the author? Having trouble with exactly what the author is claiming?) You can ask bad questions, but as someone else mentioned, bad questions happen when you haven't done the required reading or paid attention in lecture. That's something you control.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:58 PM on September 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're this diligent, you're probably doing the work for the class/program, right? Okay, so the next time you think something is interesting, take it one step further by identifying why. Did it go beyond the material? Disagree with something you read? Draw from previous material? Does it sound kind of like something else you were thinking about? Do you agree with it? Even better, does it completely go against what you thought? The answers to every single one of those questions offer you the rest of what to say after your ears prick up and you think "I want to say 'that's interesting...'"

In terms of mindset, it sounds like you have walked in to an all-you-can-eat buffet - a roomful of smart people who are all talking about something you care about. YAY! Time to stuff yourself! Think of your participation as you being indulgent and greedily trying to get as much out of this situation as you can. It's absolutely true that academic-types respect knowledge, but they also respect an unbridled passion to learn. If you have the latter, the former will come.

(And I'm sure you know this, but - practice. We tell new grad students to prep at least one question or idea to run by the speaker each seminar. If the seminar doesn't address that question/issue, they automatically have a great way to get in the game.)
posted by synapse at 7:19 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was once in this situation (but with additional regular video feedback on my performance in front of the group!). What helped was just to accept that I was the level I was, that nothing was wrong with that, and it's ok if everybody knows it. It's not a moral failing that you don't know everything already.

I learned immense amounts while being obviously and embarrassingly clueless in front of everybody, and much later I get the impression that a lot of them have great respect for the fact that I hung on in there and made the effort and learned the skills.
posted by emilyw at 4:00 AM on September 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nthing what everyone else said, re: your problem is the "unlike other students" assumption. I guarantee you the other students feel the same way. I know everyone in my phd program did.
posted by paultopia at 9:55 AM on September 15, 2014

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