I have the verbal communication skills of a crayon.
January 4, 2019 8:58 AM   Subscribe

With certain people I’m not very comfortable with (which is pretty much anyone except for very close friends/family), I have a very hard time articulating my thoughts and ideas clearly and intelligently. I think it makes me come across as kind of dumb when I find it difficult to contribute to discussions. Should I work on this, or just own it?

I never really thought of myself as lacking intelligence but lately I’m feeling more and more self-conscious about it being the case, especially recently after being out in the jungle of the dating world. It has become a sore spot/trigger for me. It seems like there’s a theme where guys have made comments seeming incredulous that I don’t know much about a certain subject matter or seem frustrated that I won’t participate in debates. This one guy I’m hooking up with now would appear “superior” to me intellectually by most standards (he seems to very much enjoy debating all kinds of topics, history, political, etc.) and I felt a little out of my comfort zone on our first date, like he would eventually catch on that I didn’t have much to contribute to these intellectual discussions. So eventually he did, and started saying things like “guys don’t really care about their girlfriends having a masters degree or being able to have intellectual discussions, they can just do that with their buddies”. It just made me feel like crap. I also just got out of a 3 year long relationship with someone who I NEVER felt comfortable talking to, and it’s sad to me that I feel that even over 3 years he never got a good idea of who I really am as a person, and what I know, etc. because I could never communicate it properly.

The strange thing is, I very much value deep discussions about emotions, and relationships, and enjoy talking to people when I am comfortable with them. There are some people (usually those I am more comfortable with) where I feel I can much more easily articulate things verbally. I don’t think I’d enjoy being with someone who I couldn’t have these discussions with.

I feel that I am probably intelligent, but maybe in a different way. It’s very frustrating to me that it doesn’t seem to come across to most people, and I hate that there are people that meet me, try to talk to me for a bit, and just because I can’t talk they come to the conclusion that I’m stupid. Sometimes I am in the middle of trying to explain something, and I realize how jumbled it sounds or how difficult it feels for me to get the idea across and I just give up in the middle. Other times I will not even attempt to contribute some piece of information to a conversation when I feel that it will be too uncomfortable for me to try to articulate it.

Is there any way I can work on becoming more verbally articulate or should I just accept that some people will think I’m dumb as a box of rocks? I mean, I guess if I really am dumb, I should just own it, right?
posted by koolaidnovel to Human Relations (20 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like there’s a theme where guys have made comments seeming incredulous that I don’t know much about a certain subject matter or seem frustrated that I won’t participate in debates.

This is SUCH a it's not you it's them thing. This is a thing that men do because they are horrible testicle wads. It's SO not you it's a meme.

You are totally ok. I promise you. It's them that suck, 150%.

And I will say there are men out there who don't suck like this but it's harder to find them and tough to pre-screen for when you're seeking dates. The best you can do is say, "you know what? this isn't working" the second they reveal themselves on a date and remove yourself from their company.
posted by phunniemee at 9:14 AM on January 4 [25 favorites]

You don't sound dumb to me. The way you've written your post is not dumb, although you definitely sound like you have some issues with your confidence.

For years I felt intellectually inferior to people who could argue about things or have debates about theoretical points because I felt like I was always a step or several behind in being able to articulate what I thought, especially if it was something I also felt strongly about. But I did well at school and uni, could write strongly and articulately about things. I was a good communicator in writing, and, like you, with people I trusted and felt comfortable with.

It's taken me years, partly to build up experience and confidence so that, especially with topics where I know my stuff, like work-related topics, I can talk much more easily and articulately. But it's also been learning that I am not a person who enjoys a combative discourse. I do not like even friendly arguments or discussions in which sides are taken. I very much enjoy discussions that explore many different angles of a topic, in which everyone is considering multiple viewpoints and no one is trying to "win" - the only goal is a better understanding of the topic at hand.

I still get frustrated sometimes that I can't describe things well - for example, last night I was trying to tell my dad about an interesting podcast and had trouble expressing some of the things I wanted to say, even though it was not a debate - just telling him about something cool. But I got across enough of what I wanted to, and it was ok.

As for your dating experiences, I think a lot of men do enjoy an oppositional type of discourse, and especially in a game-like situation (which seems to be how many approach dating) this can be heightened. I am not sure what the answer is except to have confidence in yourself and maybe spend more time getting to know each other in text so that you have a chance to consider what you say without as much time pressure. Then when you meet, it might be a bit more comfortable. Also if you can identify extremely debate-oriented people, they are probably not the best match for you.

Good luck and have faith in yourself!
posted by Athanassiel at 9:23 AM on January 4 [18 favorites]

Judging from your writing you should have no difficulty whatsoever participating in and enjoying a discussion. If you have any communication deficiency you may have one with verbalization - getting your brain to communicate with the production of verbal speech.

But you can even do that when you are with people who you are comfortable with.

The people you are comfortable with are the ones who are articulate and good at discussions because they know how to structure a discussion so other people can participate, and lead you out and pace the inter-flow so that you get included.

The guy you are talking about is probably good at expounding his ideas. In fact, he may even be competitive good. This is not the same as being good at conversation.

He's actually somewhere on the spectrum of "people who cannot shut up". (I'm on that spectrum.)

It ain't you. It's the fact that for many people a conversation is not there to get as many interesting ideas out and explored as it is to win.

I like to own the fact that I am stupid. It takes so much pressure off. It's like coming out of the closet and owning my identity. So, if you are like me, you could get some pleasure and profit out of examining the areas that you don't do so well and learning to work around them, and learning to improve. But only own that you have some verbal fluency issues if it gives you something helpful to self understanding, self appreciation and opportunities for growth. Otherwise it's on them for being limited conversationalists who are missing the essential skills of drawing others out.

They are such bad communicators they are missing almost everything you have to say. Poor souls.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:28 AM on January 4 [9 favorites]

Yeah, this is them not you. Some people do a whole verbal dick measuring thing with each other about what they know, they then throw the same verbal games into their conversations with people that don't play those games. It's them not you, they are insecure & feel the need to make people feel lesser to feel important. It is usually a sign of emotional immaturity to treat conversation as a competition. Your best bet when you see it happen is to excuse yourself & run far far away as fast as you can. They will tell themselves it's because you were intimidated by their big fat brains.

I have a bunch of friends that are super duper actually smart. Like multiple phds, rhode scholars, doing cutting edge research at ivy league institutions, the stuff of science fiction stories is what they do. I never went to college. One thing I've learned truly smart people do not want to make other people feel stupid. They want to learn all the things. You are not dumb, the people that make you feel that way are not smart. Smart people ask questions, they want to know what you know and share what they know in a way you'll understand because they love knowing things. They will go off on one of their idea bouncing conversations & they'll see me sitting there blankly & switch to "human" speak as I jokingly call it, on the same ideas, to try to include me not exclude me. Those are smart people, people that can share what they know. What you are encountering are insecure wanna be's.
posted by wwax at 9:29 AM on January 4 [37 favorites]

It sounds like you just aren't comfortable with people who engage in debating or discussion to appear intellectual superior. Or people who think that because you're quiet and not as vocal about discussing complex topics, you're not as smart as they are. That's okay! It's fine to avoid these kinds of people. You don't have to prove your intelligence to them, or give in to their compulsive urge to compare themselves to others! Being playfully competitive on a date is fun, but when one person feels like the other is really trying to prove something, it's not as fun.

Constantly feeling like you have to be on the defensive about your intelligence with some know it all dude is SO tiresome. (I feel like all women have had an experience like this at one point or another, so please don't feel dumb.) When I was younger, I used to try to defend myself, or one-up guys like that because I have some pride in my intelligence and worldliness/experiences, but once I started recognizing the behavior, it became a quick turn off and I didn't feel as tempted to try to keep up with the guy.

There are men out there who are actually pleasant to talk to even about challenging topics, who will not make you feel inferior and will give you enough space to express yourself. They are good listeners. They aren't talking to you from a perspective of "I'm smarter than her because I can talk faster, with longer sentences! She can learn a lot from me, I must seem impressive!" etc.

You're intelligent and articulate around people who you're comfortable with - no need to prove it to people who make you uncomfortable!!

That being said, if you feel like you want to work on your ability to communicate more effectively with people you don't know yet, I have found journaling/talking to yourself or doing something like a Toastmasters meet-up to be helpful for this. Also email and message boards, where you can take your time crafting a written response.
posted by zdravo at 9:30 AM on January 4 [4 favorites]

Here is an artist who works in crayon.

This is a quick spectrum of crayon work. Some artists depicted are ones you may recognize.

THIS is the potential that you have in verbal communication. Don't knock crayons, be inspired.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:45 AM on January 4 [5 favorites]

Uh yeah, I think the problem is guys who thing Debate is a fun date activity. They're usually the same people that looove to play devils advocate. Discussion, yes. Political debate? Nah. Its not you.
posted by Grandysaur at 9:54 AM on January 4 [7 favorites]

It's a bit ironic that the guy thinks you are dumb and makes patronizing remarks without realising that keeping silent is not stupidity. He's a walking example of better to keep your mouth shut and be thought dumb than to open it and prove it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:59 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]

There are some people (usually those I am more comfortable with) where I feel I can much more easily articulate things verbally

This is an important insight. You aren't inarticulate, you don't express yourself poorly - but you need to be around people you're comfortable with. This is true for me, at least - the more anxious I get about finding the right words, the less I'm able to find the right words. If you find that's true for you, there are things you can do to mitigate that anxiety, but it sounds like a lot of these guys are mostly interested in one-upping you intellectually and there's just no winning that game - save your time for people who make you feel comfortable.
posted by Jeanne at 10:01 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]

I want to reiterate strongly that this isn’t a problem with you. Men (and women, but it's usually men) enjoy arguing because they like to feel superior. They don’t want you to feel good about yourself. The men who are doing this to you are not smarter than you. They are bigger jerks than you and anyone who makes you feel this way, even if you’re not sure if it’s on purpose, is giving you a red flag not to keep seeing them.

You sound lovely and smart and kind. I think one major piece of this is that it doesn’t make you less intelligent if you aren’t well-versed in the same topics as the person you’re talking to. In fact, talking to someone who doesn’t know all the same stuff that I’m interested in is such a pleasure, because then I get to share my passions. That is how conversations should go! Are the people you’re talking to knowledgeable about the things that interest you? I don’t know what those things are, but I would watch to see if you can talk about those things (whether it’s a TV show, a book, animals, your work, Metafilter, your feelings, etc) comfortably. And then watch to see if the people you are talking to express interest in letting you talk about those things even if they don't know about them. The people you want in your life will be interested, even if they don't share all of the same interests. It's nice to have some overlap but no one should make you feel inferior for not knowing about a certain subject matter.

It is likely that the majority of the people you will date are not interested in anything other than themselves and will put the responsibility for the conversation on your lap. It's so frustrating and I think it's harder if you're a woman dating men, though I am a woman who dates women and I had the same problem. And few people are good at making conversation with someone who isn't interested in anything other than themselves, and that's okay. It’s a nice skill to have, to be able to talk to anyone even if they only care about themselves, but frankly these selfish men don’t deserve that skill wasted on them so I don't think you should try to cultivate it.

Therapy helped me get an understanding of whether I was “normal” in terms of the things I find interesting and want to talk about and the kind of people I was attracted to, which was people who didn't make me feel very smart or interesting. I started going after a breakup because I felt similarly to you — I would go on dates and feel like an alien because I couldn’t hold a conversation. I would want to find a spark so I would tell myself it must be my fault that there wasn't one. It was nice to have a space where I could talk to a therapist who was nonjudgmental and who helped me tell the difference between feeling attracted to a person because they make you feel like shit and feeling attracted to a person because they make you feel great. It is common to feel attracted to the former but not sustainable. And now I am in a long term relationship with someone who I honestly thought was pretty boring at first, but it turned out she was just nice and interested in things like math and science, two things I don't care about very much! But she is the best person I know and I am so glad I didn't keep pursuing jerks. Good luck — you deserve your own maybe-boring-at-first-but-great-person.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:14 AM on January 4 [4 favorites]

I've realized that a lot of guys like this actually have a very narrow scope of knowledge, and an even smaller set of critical thinking skills, but because they dominate the conversation around the topics that they are interested in and talk about all the time, you don't necessarily see all the gaps in their knowledge. Then they act like there's a problem with you if you don't know their particular areas of interest. It's designed to make you feel dumber than them. It does not mean that you are. If you employed the same tactics I think you'd quickly find that there are lots of things you know that they do not know. But it wouldn't occur to you to do this because it's a dick move and what's the point? It's the same way with these debates they enjoy, in my experience what they enjoy is emphatically not learning new things they didn't know but to show off or "win" the discussion. I find that tiring and a waste of time. Anyway I think this might have more to do with these guys rather than you. If you find someone who is actually interested in real conversation I think you would feel more comfortable to explore those conversations, and also, they wouldn't automatically assume you were stupid because you aren't full of quick retorts because 1) they wouldn't care about that, it's irrelevant because 2) they'd understand that that is not what makes somebody intelligent.
posted by Polychrome at 10:26 AM on January 4 [10 favorites]

I have been one of these guys,* sorry, and you're not the one with the serious problem here.

There are a lot of people who enjoy verbal play-fighting and chewing on one another's ideas. If you see those interactions as intimidating, boring, or annoying, this doesn't make you a less capable human being. You're not required to like everything, and many people dislike this thing. Rhetorical dick-measuring isn't something you have to get better at, unless you think you might enjoy it, in which case the best practice is usually fun, low-stakes, and in comfortable settings.

If guys who like relatively combative conversations are giving you crap for not participating as aggressively as them, those guys are completely in the wrong. Requiring everyone around to put up with this kind of discussion is inconsiderate and self-centered. If you told the guys that you wanted to have or continue discussions like this, and you were struggling with this communication style, making you feel inferior or inadequate would only make it harder for you to get comfier and/or more skilled. If the guys don't have the empathy and/or intellectual capacity to recognize the counterproductive and unkind nature of that approach, that's very much not a good sign. If they can't tell or don't care whether you want to interact like this, that's not cool either.

* I was this way mostly pre-transition when I read as a teen girl. People are "fighty" and eager to demonstrate their toughness for lots of reasons, but like 95% of those reasons are related to masculinity, IME.
posted by bagel at 11:04 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]

Misogyny and the patriarchy is all about soothing male egos at the expense of knowledges that marginalized folks bring. You sound lovely and thoughtful, don't change 💓
posted by yueliang at 11:43 AM on January 4 [10 favorites]

Active listening, thoughtfulness, and empathy are just as important as masterful verbal skills. If men who have spent a lot of time with you don't realize that you are uncomfortable or not participating fully in an exchange, then they are actually really bad at communicating.

Do you want to participate in these discussions? If so, maybe go seek out conversations with people who don't intimidate you, and remind yourself that conversations are not competitions, whatever these guys may think.

Otherwise, practice giving yourself permission to disengage. Sometimes confident, disinterested silence is the best response to some dude's manbabbling.
posted by toastedcheese at 11:49 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]

I hear you saying you really enjoy discussing people and relationships. There are all kinds of ways to discuss various fields in terms of people and relationships, in my opinion. I wonder if these guys who made you feel so uncomfortable ever took the time to learn your interests and your strengths and tried to talk with you in a way where your interests and thoughts could take the lead.

It doesn’t sound like there’s any significant difference of intellect between you and these men, but there’s a huge gulf of what you attend to/consider important. They’re concerned about your communication ability b/c you don’t communicate in the way they value. You, on the other hand, have their strengths and communication abilities figured out, as well as where/when you shine. This is a skill!!
posted by epj at 2:29 PM on January 4

Speaking as a fellow awkward person, own it. I got way less uncomfortable about dealing with strangers when I for real decided, "Welp, this might be awkward but nobody ever actually died of awkwardness, so I'm just gonna charge on in and if it doesn't work out, oh well." I honestly think that a lot of the awkwardness comes from the realistic belief that, chances are, I'm bot going to be able to forge a good connection with most random strangers. I'm weird. I'm different. I have opinions about things that are outside the mainstream. I am interested in topics that most people find boring, and bored by topics that most people find interesting. But you know what? That's who I am, for better or for worse, and there's no changing it. I'm just gonna do me, and if that doesn't work for someone then oh well, there are plenty of other someones in the world.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:39 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]

I'm very much an argue-about-abstractions kind of guy, literally took classes in it, kind of do it for a living, etc. But that's not really what's going on with this guy:

So eventually he did, and started saying things like “guys don’t really care about their girlfriends having a masters degree or being able to have intellectual discussions, they can just do that with their buddies”.

If this guy actually said that out loud to you, the problem is that he is astonishingly rude, not very self-aware, and probably quite gender-essentialist in a way that's rapidly falling out of fashion.

We've never spoken, so I can't pretend to know anything about your conversational skills, but you really shouldn't try to interpret anything about yourself from that interaction.

Anyway, to answer the questions you actually asked:

Sometimes I am in the middle of trying to explain something, and I realize how jumbled it sounds or how difficult it feels for me to get the idea across and I just give up in the middle.

First of all, in the moment, it's fine to stop, acknowledge the problem, and take a moment to collect your thoughts. Nobody who's ever tried to explain anything complicated will hold that against you.

After the fact, if this is a point you expect you'll need to explain again, you might benefit from re-hashing the conversation in your head so you can be better prepared next time.

If you think about the difference between the primary and tertiary literature in just about any technical field, you'll see how long it took us to figure out how to explain anything to a student. You'll also see that sometimes the best way to convey a fully-formed idea to another person is very different from the way to formulate that idea in the first place.

Is there any way I can work on becoming more verbally articulate or should I just accept that some people will think I’m dumb as a box of rocks?

You can definitely become more verbally articulate, and also you should just accept that some people will think you're dumb. That's just a thing that happens to people, usually harmlessly, and the sooner you stop dwelling on it the more you'll get done.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 11:58 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]

It seems like there’s a theme where guys have made comments seeming incredulous that I don’t know much about a certain subject matter

Do THEY actually know much about a certain subject matter? I mean, they think they do, but do they really? One thing I've noticed as I've gotten older is that there are some people who speak with the utmost confidence while saying something completely wrong or who have only the most cursory understanding of a subject. Another thing I've noticed over the years that makes me suspect that these guys might be in this category is that really, really smart people - people who I know are experts in their field - almost never speak like this. They want to share their knowledge and make you feel good for asking questions ("What a great question!"), and they themselves ask lots of questions - not to make themselves look smart but because they don't know something, and they want to learn.

So do not mistake confidence for actual knowledge. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with building a conversation by asking questions of someone who knows more than you or asking them questions about what they know or how they know it.
posted by unannihilated at 8:11 AM on January 5 [4 favorites]

I know I'm late to the party here but FWIW it took me years to finally stop seeking out guys who could keep me on my toes intellectually. Yes, it made for stimulating debate and conversation, and I learned a lot along the way, but ultimately I realized I could never relax around them. I always felt I needed to be "on."

If any consolation, now I'm married to the love of my life, a down-to-earth Ivy Leaguer who can go toe-to-toe with the best of them but prefers puns and jokes over lengthy discourses about Proust. That's much more my cup of tea!

Rooting for you.
posted by lecorbeau at 1:50 PM on January 5 [2 favorites]

There’s no point in me repeating what everyone else has said, so I’ll just get to the point: you have been dating assholes. Some of what they’re doing is essentially negging. The best response to this sort of behavior is, as mentioned above, to just leave.

These guys are insecure, and it’s not your job to prop up their egos. Find someone who appreciates and respects you. They’re out there, I promise, they just sometimes take a while to find.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:47 AM on January 6 [3 favorites]

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