How to stop unwanted behavior in oneself - smart-assery edition
January 5, 2018 7:51 AM   Subscribe

All my life I have had a tendency to be a smart-ass in conversations. Even though I know that this can leave a bad / false impression with people who don't know me that well, I have a hard time stopping this behavior once I start to relax. How do you get rid of a lifelong tendency which hurts social relations? Details inside.

I have a very good memory, am interested in many things, read a lot and am on the gifted side regarding language and expressing myself (non-native English...). Thus, I have somewhat superficial knowledge in many areas, I like to use the vast vocabulary my mother language offers and I truly enjoy helping people and sharing what I know.

Unfortunately, all these things have lead to me sometimes being perceived as a smart-ass in conversations, right from kindergarden to the recent New Years trip with new friends.

People who know me well have come to appreciate my input on all kinds of topics and otherwise joke about it which I can totally take and find funny myself. However, if things don't go well, people who have just met me may perceive me as an arrogant know-it-all who thinks, she is better than everyone else.

My problem is that I only realize how what I said came across, once I see the look on people's faces. I am often so focused on the topic at hand, I forget to hold back and communicate in a socially more acceptable way. I just blurt out or sometimes even correct people in front of others. I have no ill intentions but I know that it is an awful habit which hurts social relations.

I know this is part of who I am and I am not ashamed of it. But I would like to be able to avoid this behavior in certain situation, so people can first get to know me better. Even if I tell myself that "this time I will be chill and keep my mouth shut", I always run into the same trap once I start to relax (let's say later in the evening, after a glass of wine, or on the third day of a trip).

How can I remember to keep my cool without becoming super uptight about what I say or seeming disengaged?
posted by Fallbala to Human Relations (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
First, does your smart-assery involve sarcasm? If so, nix it. It's unpleasant among people you don't know well.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:15 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have a similar issue, but with expressing anger in inappropriate ways. Basically you need to reset your intention in the conversation. For me when I do these things I am being ridden by some sort of emotional impulse which could be anything from wanting to look smart in front of a group to being excited about the information I'm sharing and that emotional need you are serving in yourself if causing you to ignore the emotional need of the group as a whole to have a good time. If you know you are in a setting with new people, I would just set an intention at the top of the interaction that your goal is for everyone to have a good time. Journaling and meditation can be helpful in pulling apart what you're feeling and examining it objectively.
posted by edbles at 8:16 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

I would cut way back on the percentage of time you spend talking in a conversation and stop inserting yourself when you haven't been invited to speak. In other words, instead of offering your opinion or knowledge (or worse, correcting someone), resolve to spend at least 75% of the time talking about them and their experiences. People respond well to others who show more interest in them than facts. No one cares that you know so much about the dietary habits of medieval Europeans unless they ask you.
posted by AFABulous at 8:38 AM on January 5, 2018 [14 favorites]

How can I remember to keep my cool without becoming super uptight about what I say or seeming disengaged?

Actionable steps:
1. Take a breath before saying anything, and let conversational pauses happen.
2. Ask questions rather than making statements. "Dogs have 5 legs." "Oh?"
3. Repeat to yourself that it is not your job to fact-check the world.
4. Look at people's faces before you speak, listening, rather than after.

I agree to set an intention towards harmonious conversation rather than seeing conversations as exclusively communicating information. You might want to read Deborah Tannen's work on conversation, one-upping, and other thoughts about conversation, particularly The Argument Culture and That's Not What I Meant.

Also as a personal note, I am a Former Gifted Child(tm) and I was rewarded as a precocious tot for having cute and linguistically advanced answers. After years of working on my own communication style, I have learned that there is so much more to me than never had to be a part of my self-definition any more than being an early walker or talking about how good I am at martial arts (not very, but) in every context. Changing my self-image from someone who Has Answers to someone who seeks understanding has been helpful. Although I still have a really bad habit of finishing other people's sentences or talking over them when the conversation is moving quickly that I am actively working on.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:51 AM on January 5, 2018 [30 favorites]

I‘m like this! We’d make great friends!

For me it makes a big difference to have outlets where my smartassery is appreciated (like here!).

Then, I try to remember that a lot of this is sexism, not a terrible character flaw I have...I watch male friends get away with this exact behavior all.the.time. White boomer dudes would NOT have to ask your question, ever!

OK. So that means sometimes I‘m just Ok with coming across as arrogant: if you can‘t appreciate a smart conversationalist, it‘s your loss. This mostly happens in situations with near-strangers/friends of friends.

Where it‘s still an issue, I just focus on keeping my mouth shut, limit my time in those environments, or ask a lot of questions. The latter works especially well in environments where ‚uppity‘/smartass women are not welcome - asking questions signals inferiority and submission. Since you‘re smart, you can use questions to steer the conversation any way you want. And you‘ll come across as ‚friendly/curious‘. (Added plus: you find out a lot of interesting stuff that way.)
posted by The Toad at 9:07 AM on January 5, 2018 [9 favorites]

I do several things I don't want to do that are similar. Some are inherited/family-of-origin behaviors. I hope I'm making some progress. It's hard to know.

I feel like it's key to heighten and maintain my own self-awareness more than I ordinarily would in some conversations. To check in with myself how I'm feeling, whether I feel rushed to say something, whether I feel anxious about letting that un-fact go. To listen to my own pace when I talk.

It's that first step back that gives me the space to actively consider and choose the form of my response.

One related thing that I think has helped me choose the form of my response (sarcastic quip vs plain speech) is this: my mother is extremely passive-agressive in her approach. She literally expects other people to read her mind and her feelings. I do not want to burden other people in that way, and have the interactions that entails. So I have worked (HARD) on describing and stating my own feelings and needs clearly. I have pledged to communicate my inner state as clearly as I can. This has prompted me to use clear "I" statements, as a starting point. I think (hope) it's helped me to also modify the interruption/sarcasm behaviors, because it's helped me to choose clear declarative speech patterns.

Thanks for posting this question, I'm appreciating reading the other answers with you. I really like warriorqueen's #4!
posted by Dashy at 9:13 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

I can be like this, and I work on it.

Unfortunately, all these things have lead to me sometimes being perceived as a smart-ass in conversations

Part of it for me was reframing things like this. If I am "perceived" as a smart-ass, I am actually just being a smart-ass. It's not like I'm some true-of-heart person who other people mistakenly think is being a smart-ass. I say smart-ass things. Sometimes they land wrong. So that helped me own it more which helped me be a little more careful with how I talk.

How can I remember to keep my cool without becoming super uptight about what I say or seeming disengaged?

I don't know if this will be helpful for you, but sometimes remembering that the idea of being "super uptight" about what you say can also be thought of as "manners." Which is to say that most people, especially those who are fun and engaging to be around, employ some sort of filter between everything in their head and what gets said around other people. Sometimes it can be useful to talk with other people about how they make the decisions about what they say to realize that everyone does this to some degree.

People who are less neurotypical may find this a LOT more chafing to have to adjust what they say in this way (I don't know if this is you, I think it is often me), but often there's a way to recalibrate based on outcomes as opposed to your own need/desire to have the perfect response queued up that can make it equally challenging and interesting to try to facilitate the larger conversation, not just your own role in it.

Also it might help to have a buddy who can maybe help you with this calibration as well as being more comfortable letting people know this may be something you are working on and issuing a brief "Whoops, didn't mean to press your buttons there" mini-apology if you see a look on someone's face that you may have gone too far.

Lastly, it's also worth thinking about how much of this can just be gendered. i.e. possibly you're getting pushback on what would be considered a completely normal thing conversationally if it were spoken by a guy. Don't know if that's the case, but also just tossing that out there as food for thought.
posted by jessamyn at 9:23 AM on January 5, 2018 [17 favorites]

...I only realize how what I said came across, once I see the look on people's faces.

Hey, cool, you're doing great - I was initially imagining someone who didn't even notice/care about the look on people's faces!

Good advice above about how to stay in the moment and keep paying attention to how you're communicating, even when you don't feel like it and want to relax your guard. But as a backup plan, just keep paying attention to people's reactions, so you can laugh at yourself and say "gosh, I sound like such a goober, I'm sorry!"
posted by aimedwander at 9:30 AM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Whenever I get caught up in an "oh crap, why did I say that?" situation (often online, after an exchange which has gone on too long), I realize that I didn't stop to ask myself "what reaction am I trying to get by saying this?"

When I first started reframing my interactions this way it felt like I was suddenly being horribly manipulative. It still feels guarded. But it does help me have more conversations that draw people in and keep them interested.
posted by straw at 9:40 AM on January 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh, I know you! You were in my MFA program...Asking yourself "how would this make the other person feel" might be helpful. Or possibly not. I like the poster above who said, you don't have to be the fact-checker for the world. Someone said, there's nice and there's smart. I prefer nice. Also recommending the Tannen books.
posted by Rumi'sLeftSock at 9:42 AM on January 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

Week one: put a thick rubber band on your wrist.
Every time you're sarcastic or smart-ass, give yourself a snap on the wrist with the rubber band. In front of people. When they ask why you did that, explain honestly, by saying something like, "My New Year's Resolution is to be less of a smart-ass. But I kind of do it unconsciously, so this is how I'm drawing my conscious awareness to the habit."

Week two: Every time you're sarcastic or smart-ass, again with the snapping of the band, and then you also switch the wrist the band lives on. It's a bigger and more annoying thing to do, so it draws more attention to the problem.

Week three: Keep the rubber band snapping, and now start wearing a wristwatch with a buckle. Each time you slip, take off the watch right away, and switch it to the other wrist. It's super annoying, and you'll really notice when the watch is on the wrong wrist (since most people prefer their watch on their non-dominant side).

This snap-on-the-wrist system works really well. I used it to train myself out of being sarcastic a few years ago when I realized that I find sarcasm really toxic, passive-aggressive, and annoying. These days, sometimes I'm still a jerk, but at least now I'm a sincere jerk.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:45 AM on January 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I’m not sure from your question if this is part of what you do, but (ironically) one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is -

Never offer unsolicited advice.

If people haven’t specifically asked for your advice on something, they’re unlikely to be receptive to it, so you won’t achieve your aim of getting them to do as you suggest, because they’ll be feeling too defensive and/or are just not really in a mindset that’s looking to change.

And you’ll probably come across like a smart ass who thinks they know better.

(Thanks for asking for advice so that I can share it!)
posted by penguin pie at 10:46 AM on January 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

How to Win Friends and Influence People is an oldie but goodie once you get past the dated tone.

People like to talk about themselves, don't enjoy criticism and do enjoy sincere appreciation.
posted by jointhedance at 10:47 AM on January 5, 2018

While you work on reeling back, can you modulate a smart-ass comment then redirect? Say you get The Look, then go "Oh that came off wrong, I'm just excited! What do you think about..." Something that acknowledges you misspoke but moves on without self-flagellation.
posted by fritillary at 11:26 AM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

Ask a close and trusted friend who's likely to be around you a lot to Ding Train you.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:41 AM on January 5, 2018

First, you should recognize that you have already made progress and give yourself credit for that. You used to be a smart-ass to people when you first met them, and now you're not! That's great! Now you just need to build on that progress.

Second and more difficult: acknowledge that what you really want is to change your personality, not just your specific behavior. When I decided to be less of an asshole, I thought I'd police my snide comments around people at work, etc., but then be "the real me" around my friends. That led to just the situation you're describing, where "real me" would pop out when he wasn't wanted. Ultimately, I had to let go of that idea; now that I'm less of an asshole to everybody -- even people who "get it" -- it doesn't feel like an effort/put-on any more. As for how, I endorse warriorqueen's methods above.
posted by five toed sloth at 12:10 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was voted "most sarcastic" in high school and was thrilled. However, later I came to realize that I didn't like sarcasm aimed at me. And then I had the thought (after much work on myself) that much sarcasm is a defense mechanism, a sort of "do unto others before they do unto me." And I began training to recognize the sarcasm before it got out, take a deep breath while thinking of whether this jab would be worth it in the long run.

Begin a smart-ass is different, it seems to me. I like to help people and I have what I call a pack-rat mind and love trivia, so I'd always try to answer things and explain things and give analogies etc etc, whether people wanted it or not and whether or not it brought the conversation to a halt. I realized I didn't like it when done to me, so I tried to keep my mouth shut a lot and think about whether I was the world's fact-checker and encyclopedia. Well, I'm not so now I don't mind not sharing or instructing or educating because half the fun is learning it for yourself.

Mind you, I started retraining myself out of these behaviors during college so it's being going on for, oh, 40 years or so, but it's much better. Now, if I say something sarcastic, people are startled. And if I start pontificating, either I realize it and quit or a close friend tells me to stop. If you can do this, your friendships will be more peaceful and you'll make friends more easily. I did. Good luck.
posted by MovableBookLady at 12:44 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind Scalzi's Law: The failure mode of clever is “asshole.”

When people welcome your sarcastic or just unexpectedly informative input, you're clever. When they don't, you're an asshole. The hard part is sorting out in advance if they're likely to welcome it.

This is not a matter of training yourself not to throw around random info, but to read the audience before you speak. Do these people want to hear what I have to say? If the answer is "probably not," but you feel compelled to say it anyway (f'rex, correcting someone on a point of fact that could lead someone into trouble), be as polite as you can manage when interrupting the conversation.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:28 PM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

I agree with the above poster who mentioned to "nix sarcasm." If you can develop the internal habit of thinking before you speak---granted, a hard thing to accomplish but necessary in this case---ask yourself, "Is this hurtful in any way?" If you conclude that what you are about to say is only helpful, never hurtful, I wouldn't worry about being perceived as a smart-ass. Learn to use qualifiers like "possibly" and "probably", or, "I'd say that maybe..."
posted by ragtimepiano at 2:59 PM on January 5, 2018

I know this is part of who I am

It's not part of "who you are", it's a habit and habits can be changed. Who you are can't be.

Stop telling yourself it's part of who you are, it's not helping you.
posted by yohko at 3:34 PM on January 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

Thank you to everyone who replied! I would like to give a short summary of what I took away:

I am being ridden by some sort of emotional impulse. What resonated most with me, was wanting to look smart in front of a group and being excited about the information I'm sharing. There is no ill intention but I will further reflect on my motivation in order to change my behavior.

Changing my self-image from someone who has answers to someone who seeks understanding will be helpful. To achieve this, I will try to heighten and maintain my own self-awareness and check in with myself how I'm feeling during conversations. I will try to reset my intention towards more harmonious conversation rather than seeing conversations as exclusively communicating information.

In case I blurt out, I will have a short apology ready which acknowledges I misspoke but let’s me move on without self-flagellation. I could, for example, laugh at myself and say "gosh, I sound like such a goober, I'm sorry!" or "Oh that came off wrong, I'm just excited! What do you think about..."

I am aware of the sexism involved. While it might be unfair, I will need to work with typical reactions if I intend to make new friends. It will be ok to come across as a smart conversationalist, but I don’t want to leave a false impression of being arrogant or aloof. The failure mode of clever is “asshole.”

Last but not least, I could find outlets where my smartassery is appreciated, e.g. rejoining my old board game club.

[I am not sarcastic, just overly excited about trivia, so I didn’t mark those answers as helpful, even though they might be for others.]
posted by Fallbala at 2:12 PM on January 7, 2018

I am not sarcastic, just overly excited about trivia

In that case, my lexicon would call you a know-it-all.

As I have come to know the words sarcastic and smart-ass, and I would add smart-aleck and wise-guy, these are more negative; they suggest a mocking humor at others' expense.

Great question, thanks.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:46 PM on January 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

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