How to be Polite Without Assuming Superiority
September 2, 2019 9:30 AM   Subscribe

If you assume someone will say dumb stuff, it's polite to maintain a game face. The assumption is inherently condescending, so it doesn't come easily to those lacking the arrogance gene. Yet people really prefer a composed game face despite the superiority behind it. I'd like help working through this conundrum. More explanation below.

If I'm talking to someone I consider smart, and they say something dumb, I usually show them the courtesy of openly revealing my shock. I could never patronize a smart person; it would be disrespectful. My surprise shows that I found the stupidity aberrational.

With people from whom I expect stupidity, I used to adopt a polite veneer, perpetually braced for nonsense and never flinching at its appearance. Not wanting to offend the poor dears, I talked down to "their level".

But having come to recognize that I myself am often dumb, I've lost my capacity for smug superiority (I still recognize errors but it doesn't lower my esteem). Since no one seems "lower level" to me, I find it very hard to construct and maintain a patronizing veneer, even though a "WTF" response scans to most people as insulting. "That thing you said was (surprisingly) dumb" = "You are a dumb person".

Respectful shock at aberrational stupidity strikes people, paradoxically, as condescension. Most actually prefer to be patronized (so long as it's not flagrant). Patronization feels respectful, because it insulates them from the truth (a big part of "politeness"). But lacking the superiority to whip up a nice solid veneer of patronization, I upset people with my unfiltered reactions.

Obviously I need another way to look at this. I need to maintain an unflinching polite veneer without feeling smugly superior (even though I myself prefer honest feedback when I'm dumb). Suggestions?
posted by Quisp Lover to Society & Culture (51 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Find a way to separate people being incorrect from doing something shocking and upsetting. Everyone is incorrect frequently; it's not difficult to gently note it without being shocked or fake.

If you were always the smart kid in class and get a lot of your personality and self-worth from intelligence, it can become a real obsession later in life, and become how you rank people or value people. It's really empty, though. People have all kinds of characters---good, bad, medium, silly, brave, sweet, rude---which are admirable and enjoyable completely apart from their intelligence. Try to work harder on your character being one of respect for others, regardless of whether they strike you as "smart" or "dumb."
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:40 AM on September 2, 2019 [68 favorites]

Let me suggest that performative displays of shock over statements you consider dumb is not the done thing in polite society. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to keep a completely neutral face, but for most any interlocutor something along the lines of a slight frown or minor shaking of the head will suffice to express your disagreement with a statement.
posted by slkinsey at 9:41 AM on September 2, 2019 [49 favorites]

Being polite is not being patronizing.

Opening a door for someone is not a commentary on their ability to open doors and they would need to have extraordinarily low self esteem to think it did.

Not belching at the dinner table is not a commentary on your companions' inability to deal with burps. Once again, it would take people with extraordinarily low self esteem to think it was.

Finally, letting conversational gaffes slide is not a commentary on someone's intelligence or lack thereof. If you feel you're being patronizing that's on you, but there's no reason for a speaker to think they're being patronized rather than just talking to a polite person.

I suspect you may feel patronized when people overlook your mistakes and you're projecting that onto others.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:54 AM on September 2, 2019 [31 favorites]

If you assume someone will say dumb stuff, it's polite to maintain a game face. The assumption is inherently condescending

I don't think it's condescending, I think it's polite. Kind.

If I'm talking to someone I consider smart, and they say something dumb, I usually show them the courtesy of openly revealing my shock.

I'm not sure that's a courtesy. You could be polite to them and keep your game face in the same way you would for people you think are 'dumb'. Why would you think it's polite to show your shock that someone's said something stupid, even if they are smarter than you?

If correcting them is absolutely necessary for the discussion to continue, do it kindly, whatever your assessment of their intellect. If it's not, just listen kindly, whatever your assessment of their intellect.

Just be kind to everyone, whether you think they're cleverer than you or not. Be kind.
posted by penguin pie at 9:54 AM on September 2, 2019 [20 favorites]

The premise here is wrong. Work on the fact that people making mistakes in conversation shocks you so much. Don't judge whether a person is smart or dumb, just accept that, you know, talk happens and includes things you think are incorrect. It's not a terrible thing and it's not an aberration because no one is always correct in all their facts in spontaneous conversation, and people work out ideas in talking to friends that they might not stand by the way they would in a published essay.
In addition, just because someone says something you thing is wrong doesn't mean they are dumb, or even that the thing they said is dumb. You can ask them to clarify. Sometimes after someone explains what they meant you can see it was actually an interesting angle on something that you didn't think of before, not a dumb error.
Conversation is a live event with inherent errors, and if you work to expect that normal conversation has all kinds of ins and outs (including your own) you won't have to work so hard to conceal shock at something someone says.
posted by nantucket at 10:05 AM on September 2, 2019 [28 favorites]

This whole question comes off as being patronizing. If someone says something you feel is not the smartest, just be polite. Polite is the same whether or not you've pre-judged them as a smart person or not. Don't laugh in their face, dont make big shows of how they did something stupid even if it's out of character, dont go out of your way to maintain a "game face" - just politely disagree or deflect, and move on.
posted by cgg at 10:05 AM on September 2, 2019 [39 favorites]

Yes, so many odd assumptions here that it's hard to know quite what to say.

I don't find myself in many conversations where I'm judging my interlocutor sentence-by-sentence on the dumbness or otherwise of what they're saying - so, I don't find that my face wants to make possibly-impolite shapes that I have to struggle to control.

On the whole, I have a conversation with someone because I want to find out what they're going to say. An expression of mild-to-moderate interest seems like a good default.
posted by rd45 at 10:07 AM on September 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

You didn't give any examples of what a "dumb statement" might be so I'm not sure if you're talking about ignorance of well-known facts from school/popular culture or ignorance in the sense of cruelty, but I think the attitude that you can instantly and unfailingly assess the "dumbness" of someone else's statements may be where the issue is.

None of us actually have a "dumbness" detector that can ping whenever someone says something stupid. We can only tell if they say something that conflicts with our own education and worldview. So I think when someone says something that shocks you with its dumbness, the best internal narrative is not "should I or shouldn't I conceal the wave of judgement my brain just unleashed on this person," it's "I wonder what messages or information they came across in their life that caused them to believe this strange thing is true" and then if it's actually worth acknowledging, you can kind of ask them why they think that. If they so regularly say "dumb" things that you don't care where they come from and don't have the energy to unpack them, continuing to politely ignore them seems like the best course.
posted by space snail at 10:08 AM on September 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

You’re almost exactly ass-backwardsly wrong here, and I am shocked that anyone could have it so completely reversed from what’s correct!

Does that feel nice? Do you feel respected my my confusion that you could be so wrong?

Most of us would not. The polite thing to do is not make a big deal of mistakes, unless we are in a specific context of teaching, mentoring, or instruction, where our job is to gently point out mistakes as a form of education.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:11 AM on September 2, 2019 [18 favorites]

Sounds like you are doing a lot of mind reading. I can usually get a feel for someone's competence in whatever sphere, but I have no idea how smart anyone is in general.

However, I work in technology, and frequently I deal with knowledge/skills mismatches. The trick is clarify why they might think something. Always remember, there may be a reason the other person is right, due to some context you are missing. Once you've clarified, if you still disagree, state that as an opinion. If "encrypt-then-mac is better than mac-then-encrypt" is true, then "I'm under the impression encrypt-then mac is better than mac-then-encrypt" is also true, and more polite.

Why the two steps? If you're right, you have the chance to state your case reasonably politely, based on a correct understanding of the incorrect point. If you're wrong, you haven't contradicted the other person or overridden them, and you can continue the discussion politely. If it's not clear, you've opened the discussion rather than closed it or avoided it. If it's not important, you've made your point, and you don't need to overpower the other person: "Huh, I thought it was Emily Bronte. Anyhoo, …"

This process doesn't have an input for how smart the person speaking is, because it's unknowable.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:12 AM on September 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

When I don't agree with something someone says, I try to approach the disagreement with curiosity. "I'm not sure I understand. Can you explain more?" I find it leads to more fruitful conversations.
posted by lazuli at 10:19 AM on September 2, 2019 [20 favorites]

I am firmly on the bench that it is polite to be unsurprised when someone doesn’t know something, regardless of whether you they’re smart or not — you treat it as perfectly normal, there’s no reason for them to have known whatever the thing is, and you explain politely and move on. There is an exception for very very very close friends and family who I will give shit to for being ignorant if they don’t know something.

BUT. I have a couple of times run into people who are operating on the same assumption (I think?) as the OP, and will do things like deliberately play dumb, pretending not to know something obvious, as a joke, and then be offended by my polite explanation, because my willingness to explain politely means that I believed it was plausible that they were really ignorant rather than kidding. I have no idea how to deal with this and I find it maddening. I don’t want to sort people into smart and dumb to figure out how to be polite to them, I want to be able to be polite the same way to everyone (again, barring intimate friends and family who I am not polite to at all).
posted by LizardBreath at 10:24 AM on September 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I imagined that I was asking a nuanced question, but many of you have helped me realize that I'm just missing super obvious and elementary elements of what it is to be human. The issue is starkly simple and my nuance was mere nonsense.

Thanks, everyone, for de-complicating me, and for un-subtling my conundrum! The Internet's like an enormous and inexhaustible processing plant for this!
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:32 AM on September 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

For now while you work on this, try substituting your current reaction that someone has said something dumb with a question for yourself—“what am I missing here that makes their statement seem stupid?” That will occupy your mind (and your facial reaction).

In general I think most people have a good gut sense for phony behavior, so whether subconsciously or consciously, they can tell that you are feigning something when you try to put on a game face. It might be more effective to try to change your own reaction than to try and hide your reaction that way.
posted by sallybrown at 11:07 AM on September 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: =======
For now while you work on this, try substituting your current reaction that someone has said something dumb with a question for yourself—“what am I missing here that makes their statement seem stupid?” That will occupy your mind (and your facial reaction).

Yes! Ding-ding-ding! I do that! Every time!

But it stops the conversation. And when you stop a conversation to contemplate potential implications of rather banal statements, that parses as "WTF is this idiot saying?"

Which is actually almost what I'm thinking, except for the "idiot" part, because if I thought they were an idiot, I'd nod with oily humoring indulgence and say "Absolutely! I know exactly what you mean!"

I only ponder the statement because I refuse to accept that they were saying what they seemed to be saying. But the pondering, even with a poker face, telegraphs what I'm doing. And it doesn't seem respectful. Quite the contrary. Not gapping the conversation - not blinking! - and going right to oily humoring is a lot smoother, and better-received. But I don't like to give up on people and lower my expectation. It seems disrespectful.

So what now?
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:15 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I get what you’re saying, and the difficulties you’re pointing out here, but I think they might be inherent in conversation, to the point where most of us have absorbed them as the way things are. Basically, there’s not going to be any one way to do this. It’s always dependent on context—who is speaking, how many others are there, how much you want to center yourself or the topic in the conversation, where you’re having this conversation, how well you know this crowd, etc. It demands a commitment of attention and quick thinking that we kind of train ourselves into. Ever noticed how easy it can be to get out of practice at being social? A couple days of being alone or a long day of staring at a computer at work and I can feel how rusty my skills are. They slow down and like you’ve described, people can see me straining to process their statements and what to say next.

So I think it just takes some practice—not at adopting a game face, but at thinking through different considerations. At the two extremes: let’s say I’m sitting in a quiet house alone with my dad and he says something that I find extremely “huh???” He’s known me forever, I have as much time to clarify as I’d want, I can risk pissing him off, I know he’s smart, etc—so I’d say “huh? I don’t get it.” and get him to explain at length. The converse—I’m tagging along with a friend to a party she got invited to in a noisy bar and standing in a circle of people making small talk, and someone I just met said something “huh?????” I think—I don’t know this person, I can barely hear in this bar, I don’t want to sidetrack the whole conversation or butt myself into it, so it’s an easy call for me to just wonder inside my head and say nothing. That’s where you use your game face. A lot of social interaction is between these two poles and you just need practice to figure out how to negotiate all the in-betweens. You’ll have friends who prefer a polite game face and friends who would prefer you to say “wtf are you talking about, dude!”

There’s no single rule that will always fit, in other words.
posted by sallybrown at 11:28 AM on September 2, 2019 [12 favorites]

Regarding the way this question was asked - I often try to explain previously held (and admittedly mistaken) patterns of thinking to people in what I think is a nuanced, humorous way and it almost never works. I usually wind up saying, “No! That's what I used to think."

As to having easy casual relations with all sorts of personalities, I felt really lacking all my life - which drew me towards people who seemed really good at it - people who turned out to be life destroying sociopaths. So try not to worry about as much I did.

I've deleted everything else I was going to say because sallybrown nailed it so perfectly.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:44 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I only ponder the statement because I refuse to accept that they were saying what they seemed to be saying. But the pondering, even with a poker face, telegraphs what I'm doing.
Try asking clarifying questions with a premise that you might be mistaken.

"I was always taught such-and-such, did something change recently?"
"I thought it was so-and-so that did the thing, do I have that wrong?"
"The documentation about X says Y but you're saying Z, do we need to update this?"
"I had thought that too but then I read blah, what do you think?"

... and so on. It will save you the stress of blocking the flow of conversation while you try to read the other person's mind (unlikely to be productive) and allows your conversation partner to save face. It's much easier to say "Oh, you're right, it was so-and-so that did the thing, I was thinking of this other thing" or "Could be, let's check with the documentation owner" than try to formulate a polite response to someone's spluttering disbelief.
posted by 4rtemis at 11:50 AM on September 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

But I don't like to give up on people and lower my expectation. It seems disrespectful.

So what now?

How are you giving up on anyone by accepting that we are all unique? How are you lowering your expectation by accepting that everyone is different??

I am struggling more with your notion that people who don't know everything that you know are inherently stupid (or at least, stupid in one particular area at the moment) which strikes me as so judgey and frankly...SO STUPID.

I mean, nobody is ever an expert anywhere, and life is about collaboration and learning as we go. We're not born with the exact same set of smarts that stays constant for everyone. We all learn and grow at our own pace and that is sort of the essence of life.

It's not saying something stupid if you just don't know a thing. That's how people learn.

So just your continuing to lump people who don't know as much as you as stupid people is horrible.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:02 PM on September 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Several have requested an example. Here's a typical one (and I'll shut up henceforth). I think it shows, 4rtemis, that asking "what did you mean?" when someone says something randomly ditzy only compounds the problem; shines a light on the ditziness.

TL;DR many people are not in the game of being listened to closely or thoughtfully responded to. But that *is* my game...and shutting it down would require (from my standpoint) condescension that I lack.

Last night I asked my friend's wife if she was hungry. She replied "Now?"

My visceral initial reaction was a discombobulated "HUH?". But I didn't say that. I started thinking, plumbing for missed value. But it was like chewing non-existent gum. There was no there there, just random non-sequitur. Which is no crime , and she doesn't deserve the least bit of bad feeling for it (she's very nice! I like her!).

But at this point, I'm two seconds into pausing to ponder, and she's growing agitated because the same has happened a couple times previously, because she says lots of random goofy stuff (again, I like her! She's nice! I want her to be happy!).

Her husband barely listens to her. He drones "yes dear" and she's content with that. If I were to similarly lower expectations and detach engagement - just gliding easily with less attention paid - I'd make things smoother too. She'd surely prefer that to watching me parse every banal utterance with what comes off as haughty disgust (despite my poker face).

But that would require me to give up on her. Lowering expectations and reducing attention is the very definition of disrespect, regardless of how she parses it all.

Many people don't WANT to be paid much heed. They're skating the surface, expecting to be regarded with dull casualness. But my problem/deficiency/idiocy is that I can't bring myself to shift into that mode. All I have to offer is my attention! How can I withhold that - even partially - without an attitude of smug, superior dismissal?
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:07 PM on September 2, 2019

You're not being as smart as you think you are. "Now?" in that context, might mean "It's awfully early/late/an unexpected time to eat" or "I haven't thought about it, are you asking because *you* are hungry?" A response I might give to that would elaborate on *my* motivations - for example, "I know it's only 5 but I skipped lunch, so I'm ready whenever everyone else is" or "The restaurant we were planning on fills up early, we might want to get a table soonish."

Just because you can't put your finger on what's being communicated doesn't mean nothing's being communicated. I suspect your friend's wife left that exchange thinking you were kind of an idiot who couldn't hold a conversation.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:13 PM on September 2, 2019 [58 favorites]

Last night I asked my friend's wife if she was hungry. She replied "Now?"

There is literally nothing stupid about her response and I think we're migrating into that AskMe arena of getting answers to a question you didn't ask, because people are finding something behind your question. This is to say that you're coming off as judgmental and assuming you're smarter than other people, then offensively patronizing by repeating someone is nice and you want them to be happy while also noting her spouse ignores her (presumably because she's so dumb).

So I would suggest rereading this question and consider the arrogance of someone else asking this, except they're asking it about you and how the things you say are so dumb that they can't control their face.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:13 PM on September 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: It was dinnertime. And 30 seconds later she and her husband were happily walking with me toward a restaurant, because they decided they were hungry and it was dinnertime (they ate a ton with gusto, I'm happy to report). I didn't care either way, was just solicitously asking her prefs.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:16 PM on September 2, 2019

And there's literally no story you can tell yourself about why she said what she said? Again, I think the failing here is not on her. You need to stop convincing yourself that what you don't understand or don't immediately get is wrong and dumb and beneath you, or you will just end up protecting your own precious ignorance.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:19 PM on September 2, 2019 [19 favorites]

she says lots of random goofy stuff (again, I like her! She's nice! I want her to be happy!).

Her husband barely listens to her. He drones "yes dear"

So she's like basically a canary? Likeable, easily delighted, often makes pleasing, if incomprehensible, sounds? When the things a person says are treated as "lots of random goofy stuff" by their auditors or barely listened to and met with droning, the person's utterances might well grow evermore random and goofy. You may not know this, but women generally are used to being thought dullards. It's happened to me many, many times. When I'm among people who very evidently think I'm a moron, I tend to fall silent and commune with my thoughts until I can escape, but I could imagine, were I shackled to these people by marriage, maybe piping up now and then with some bright non sequitur, just to see what might happen.

To read: A Doll's House. Trifles.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:25 PM on September 2, 2019 [25 favorites]

Just drop the judgment and respond at face value.

"Yes, I'm hungry now. Are you?"
"Oh, I thought it was X."

The issue here is the underlying judgmentalism, not whatever you're doing with your face or how your conversational partner is responding. Until you learn to drop that, the actual words you say or faces you make don't matter.
posted by lazuli at 12:29 PM on September 2, 2019 [21 favorites]

Another way to respond is with warmth and affection; you like her, she said something, this is nice, you're with someone you care about, nothing is strange. But to do this requires that you remove your judgement about non-sensical statements as being shocking, strange, useless, whatever. Non-sensical statements are completely fine. The truth or un-truth of a given utterance is basically irrelevant to the human behind it. See the human; respond to the human. I mean it. If you relieve yourself from an attachment to things being correct or incorrect you will be much happier and people will like you much more.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:45 PM on September 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Also, really, in some scenarios the truth value of a given statement is important, but you're not a surgeon in an operating room or a lawyer giving advice to a client on death row or a pilot telling your co-pilot what levers to pull. You could sit around being wrong about dinner, about being hungry, about the color of the sky...the important things are that you have each other, you trust each other, and you are with each other. Within that context---which is most contexts---you can relax and go with what people say instead of trying to make sure it is right (or not).
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:47 PM on September 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

That example you gave wouldn't have baffled me terribly. She heard "Are you hungry?" as "Should we eat something?" (which is a pretty likely subtext from a pragmatic perspective in the scenario you described, because why else would you ask her?), infering that you're the one who might be hungry and wouldn't mind a meal at some point rather soon than later. "Now?" might mean "It's kinda not what I had planned right now, but I wouldn't mind grabbing something to eat in about an hour, how urgent is this for you?"

It's a reasonably informative answer, because someone whose stomach is already gnarling would probably have food on their mind already and answer that question more decisively. On the other hand someone who has already had enough to eat for this day and doesn't plan for any more calories would probably tell you so too. "Now?" means that she's not hungry enough to drop everything else in order to eat right this very moment, but also not generally opposed to the idea of having another meal at some point in the forseeable future, which is an answer that makes perfect sense to me in this context. She just was already a step ahead of you, answering the implied follow-up question and not the literal initial one.

To me, this reads not like a case of someone being ditzy, but of you being overly literal. Words don't just have literal meanings but often also practical implications, and some people are just quicker at reacting to those. Maybe you might benefit from reading up on Schultz von Thun's four ears model. . There's always multiple layers of meaning to any expression and people won't always immediately react to the one that's on top of your own mind. A lot of interactions with other people became a lot less baffling to me, once I started to consider the multiple layers of my own messages.
posted by sohalt at 12:48 PM on September 2, 2019 [35 favorites]

Last night I asked my friend's wife if she was hungry. She replied "Now?"

She was doing the same thing you’re asking about, except her default is to ask for clarification indirectly instead of putting on a game face.

You: “Are you hungry?”
Her: confusion...why is he asking...if I say yes, what will I want to leave right now to go get food, I don’t know...I’m not sure what I want to he coming with us to dinner...what should I say...”Now?”

Yes, taken literally it’s a non sequitor. You didn’t ask her “were you hungry this afternoon?” or “will you be hungry an hour from now?” But her short answer is a quick way to delay or extend the conversation while demanding some clarification. Some people, asked “Now?” would respond by adding more information, like “yes, I was wondering if you guys wanted to leave for dinner now, and where you’d like to go?”
posted by sallybrown at 12:50 PM on September 2, 2019 [13 favorites]

Is it possible that you're paying so much attention to the literal meaning of the words coming out of peoples' mouths that you are not paying attention to the actual meaning? Meaning is in tone, context, expression, body language, shared history, etc. In fact it is so multifaceted that most of us couldn't logically think our way through it in real time and still carry on a conversation...we just try to be present and let the analysis happen subconsciously and holistically. If this isn't how conversation works for you, it makes sense that it's a struggle at times. Just know that others aren't approaching this the way you are, and it's not because they're paying attention less, it's because they're perceiving more.
posted by Ausamor at 1:04 PM on September 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

It's like when I'm in a restaurant with my mom and she says, "Would you like to try some of my shepherd's pie?" I will always respond, "Here, try some of my brown butter sauteed brook trout," or whatever it is on my plate that she's been eyeing because she may be asking what I want, but what she's actually doing is trying to get what she wants, and rather than play along politely, I like to sigh loudly and serve her up a big old wedge of steaming hot pecan-encrusted superior menu parsing. This is because I am terrible.

So the woman in your example may not be a whittering imbecile; it's actually more likely that she's a polite and kind version of me and is cutting to the chase and zeroing in on the practical question--is it time to eat? Again this is gendered because as the laydeee, she will be thinking of the menfolk. So when she hears "Are you hungry?" she skips past her own state of being to the more important question of how you men are doing. "O, Quisp Lover is talking food; the poor boys may be hungry; should we eat dinner?" and thus she comes back with the apparently imbecile "Now?"

So what you need to do is develop a theory of mind for your friends, especially the women among them, that assumes weird utterances are not "dumb" but proof of manifold depths of emotional intelligence.
posted by Don Pepino at 1:08 PM on September 2, 2019 [44 favorites]

"If I'm talking to someone I consider smart, and they say something dumb, I usually show them the courtesy of openly revealing my shock. I could never patronize a smart person; it would be disrespectful"
You have poor social skills and are very judgmental. You haven't lost the capacity for smug superiority yet, sorry, because you seem to think that being polite to someone is actually disrespecting them.

Making that "are you an idiot?" face at someone is not doing them a service, and having good social skills isn't the same thing as being patronizing. You should work on being less judgmental overall. Avoid making other people feel stupid or inferior to you. There's nothing noble about doing that, and doing that will make it harder to understand others and be understood by them.

Last night I asked my friend's wife if she was hungry. She replied "Now?"

Why not just clarify your question if you don't understand her answer? Why not respond with "I'm about to head out to dinner, are you hungry now/would you like to join me, or would you rather wait a bit?" and let her answer again. Why is saying "now?" a shockingly dumb reaction on her part? I don't get it. If you can't summon the intelligence to puzzle through why she might have said "now?" (like thinking of some of the options restless_nomad described in a comment above) AND you react to that by getting a WTF expression rather than just clarifying verbally what you are asking her and why...I suspect you are the dumb one in this example, not her.

As for her husband ignoring her, she knows he's doing that and likely says random goofy shit to demonstrate that he is ignoring her/to amuse herself/to see how he will react. She's not as stupid as you think. She has self-awareness. How her husband communicates with her shouldn't have anything to do with how you talk to her. You can still be polite if her husband is rude. The way to do that is be interested in what she wants to say, and if you don't understand her, seek clarification.
posted by zdravo at 1:10 PM on September 2, 2019 [15 favorites]

Also, it will benefit you very much to consider that, in many contexts, the apparently stupider the statement being made, the higher the likelihood that you are being stupid for not understanding it. If nothing else, your desire to avoid embarrassment should encourage you to dampen down your initial response.
posted by praemunire at 1:11 PM on September 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

Yeah, wow, the example you gave is really different to me than a "dumb" example which I would categorize more like misinformation, like what if someone is holding court in a conversation with entirely wrong facts (for example, I have a flat earther in my family circle.)'s the thing, she took your question as a bid for connection/action/decision and actually out-thought the conversation several paces ahead. That's not being dumb and there's no need to assess anything about intelligence in this situation. It's a form of lateral thinking. My son does this a lot and he is also a pretty driven artist, so I think for him it's that he kind of rotates visual images and spaces in his mind in ways that are mysterious to me and I am left trying to keep up. So if I say "where's the bus stop?" he sometimes gives me information from a different angle, like if I were coming from the side, because we can see the back end of the building over there so if I would only rotate that building in my mind and see the front of it, and then image walking to the stop from that way, I would know where it was by triangulation. But my poor brain wants to know "1 block that way."

So in this conversation you weren't actually keeping up.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:12 PM on September 2, 2019 [27 favorites]

My take is that you should treat all people, whether you consider them intelligent or not, exactly the same. I know "smart" people who say foolish things (because they are tired, because they are misinformed, because they aren't paying attention to what the conversation is about) and I know "not smart" people who say erudite, perceptive things. Children know less than adults about most things and yet often say brilliant things, and elders in positions of leadership often say incredibly stupid, factually incorrect things. In interpersonal conversations, overtly faking your reaction, or steeling yourself to have ANY reaction, is unpleasantly (and unnecessarily) fake.

because if I thought they were an idiot, I'd nod with oily humoring indulgence and say "Absolutely! I know exactly what you mean!"

You might want to ask yourself why you would do this. We may humorously indulge a four-year-old telling a story, but even a kid a few years older will intuit that you are BS-ing them. When an elderly friend or client tells me something that I know to be inaccurate, I will either gently say that I understand why they might have that perception, but that I've learned X is actually the case (and show them, if applicable, like if they assume something can't be done with a gadget or believe someone else's lie) or, if the person is unpleasantly wrong (politically) and the situation is not worth upsetting myself about, I give them some measure of, "Yeah, I'm not engaging in this" face.

If you know someone is saying something "stupid" and you don't want to point out that they head-smackingly wrong, you can simply keep a neutral "I am listening but not agreeing" visage. Either you want to point out the facts to someone or you don't, but that should be situationally based on the time, space, energy, etc. and not whether you consider the person worthy of faking your response. But again, remember, as you've seen from how this thread has gone, the person may not be "wrong" or "stupid" at all, and you may just be missing the entire other side of the conversation.

I'm considered pretty darned smart, but if someone GASPED at my saying something they considered counterfactual, even if intended as a compliment, I'd think they were narcissists. In fact, the sole example I can give of my 50+ years of life of someone doing this is when I had a conversation with a friend, hung up, and mentioned to my mother that my friend had just informed me that I'd been mispronouncing Samuel Pepys last name. (Not exactly dinner table conversation in most homes, anyway.) My late father, who was later diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, did a big, fake, gasping performance of shock that I could have not known that. (We rolled our eyes and ignored him, which is what I suspect you might be in for if you continue to show shock that your "smart" friends have imperfections.)

Treat everyone equally; point out their errors or don't, as you prefer in the situation, but don't assume a person "is" smart or not smart. Your example of your friend's wife says so much more about you than about her.

And if you think patronization ever feels respectful, I assure you that your position is, dare I say, not very smart.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 2:01 PM on September 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

Mate, when people on here are universally telling you that you are acting like a complete tool, stop making it worse by giving examples of “really stupid women you know”.

Another objectively Smart Person (physician, PhD, etc) who would happily answer “[Why do you ask, do you want to get food] now?” to that question. It’s just a contraction that I would assume most people would understand from the context. If you can’t cope with verbal shorthand when it is situationally obvious what she meant, she’s not the dumb one. But as you say, she’s just a fluffy little girly and nobody expects females to cope with Proper Conversations do they? Maybe talk to her about shoes and you’ll get some sense out of her.

I’d also be offended if you looked shocked that “somebody as bright as me said something so dumb”. I’d be more than offended, I’d tell you to go fuck yourself, or some situationally-appropriate equivalent, and end the conversation.

Seriously, if you’ve not understood something, regardless of the perceived intelligence of your conversational partner, assume the issue is with you. That advice has stood me in very good stead over the years of taking histories from mostly frail elderly and often delirious patients. There is often a step you are missing in their logic, but once you follow their thought process they usually make perfect sense.
posted by tinkletown at 2:07 PM on September 2, 2019 [17 favorites]

So, a lot of conversational stuff can be a bit weird because people are often thinking about different things, and bringing different assumptions to the table and aren’t always responding to the thing you think you are asking/telling/otherwise communicating to them and also sometimes literally mishear you. It’s good therefore to operate by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, and also be very careful about making assumptions about people’s intelligence.
In the case you mentioned, I’d have just said—yes, I was thinking this might be a good time to head on over to the restaurant as long as you are ready to eat. If it was a situation where they got a basic fact wrong, I’d think about whether a correction was really important for the conversation or would come across as disruptive and nitpicking.
posted by pie_seven at 2:13 PM on September 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Short answer: no, you will not be demonstrating intellect nor respect for others by being outwardly rude to someone who says something you consider “dumb.”

Being genuinely respectful in this situation requires you to consider that you are not always the smartest person in the room, and someone else might actually have information (including social skills) you do not have.

The way you frame your question, as though you do not want to insult the intelligence of your peers, comes off a little insincere because your perspective seems to leave little room for the possibility that you might be the one who is wrong about the thing.

I am not saying this is you, because I do not know you personally, but just a cautionary tale: I know a few people who tend to assume they are always the smartest one in the room, and that anyone who is almost as smart will surely be grateful to get a rude public dressing-down for saying something “wrong.”

The thing is, that guy is often wrong, and he often doubles down on the wrongness as soon as anyone speaks up. No one else in the room tends to think, “Wow, that guy is so much smarter than me!” They think, “Wow, that guy is embarrassing himself and alienating people again.”

The resulting reputation isn’t “genius who doesn’t need to abide by our silly, average-IQ social conventions.” It’s “difficult person with delusions of genius.” I have seen many such people get fired and dumped and blacklisted, and it blindsided them every time. You really do not want be that guy.
posted by armeowda at 2:21 PM on September 2, 2019 [14 favorites]

"all I have to offer is my attention" -- this is like saying "all I have to offer is my withering criticism" or "all I have to offer is a swift pivot kick to the nads."

Nobody likes being critiqued in conversation.

ABSOLUTELY NOBODY likes being "assessed" for intelligence by someone they haven't paid for that service.

The "now" you found so moronic could have been a stalling tactic because the conversation was moving too fast; or because there had been an abrupt change of topic, or because she was thinking "oh no if I say yes he's going to come to dinner with us."

And: notwithstanding some of the things you've said here, I'll assume you're genuinely wanting to know how people have pleasant conversations with people who aren't a great match because they're milder in their speech and cadence. The secret is mostly to listen.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:11 PM on September 2, 2019 [10 favorites]

A lot of good responses here. Another thing that has helped me and may help you is that I decided a few years ago that conflating smart/stupid with good/bad was wrongheaded and to separate them in my mind, caring more about the latter and very little about the former except in situations where it is specifically relevant.

So if I'm talking to someone and they say something that's wrong--it's racist, sexist, hurts someone in some way--then I do hope to try in the moment to react in a way that is respectful of everyone involved and also doesn't let the wrongness slide. Perhaps what they said was also stupid, but that's not why it's a problem. Looking taken aback is perfectly appropriate in this case. If that person says something that strikes me as not so smart but harmless, I don't have to think about how to react because I don't care if it's smart.
posted by lampoil at 4:34 PM on September 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

I decided a few years ago that conflating smart/stupid with good/bad was wrongheaded and to separate them in my mind

Yeah I think it's helped me a lot to live where more people are literal(a rural area of the northeastern US). I can be really literal, it's just sort of how I am. But I don't assume other people are going to be, and I like to feel like I have a clue what's going on around me so if I don't understand something I'll just ask. And sometimes people then think I'm being weird or stupid or whatever, but honestly for me I'd rather someone thought I was stupid than they thought I thought they were stupid.

So like instead of stupid/smart, I'll sometimes go with quick/thorough (or two words that are non-judgmental for me). Or even "Like I talk" and "Not like I talk" because I do have some friends whose brains seem to work like mine and it's fun to talk to them because there are a lot of shortcuts there and I like to talk quickly. A lot of people confuse me. But at some level, to me, that's because I am easily confused more than they are confusing. And if I am confused (and there's a pretty good chance they don't want me to be) I will just ask a clarifying question. And most of the time that totally works. And gets across my main point which is "This is my friend, I like them. I want them to be comfortable around me."
posted by jessamyn at 5:20 PM on September 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

My mother does the performative shock thing whenever anyone says something she considers obtuse. My mother is, and long has been, desperately lonely. She is also, to put it delicately, aging. I strongly recommend that you consider another way. Her way is nothing but misery.

I work in an interdisciplinary setting in which nobody knows it all, or can. I keep my feelings about what and how people know things close to my chest in this professional setting, and that has paid off more than any other skill. It isn’t patronizing at all. It is grace, and I do it because it makes relationships warmer, because the more confused they are the more I will need to be able to teach them, and I cannot teach people I have just shamed; and because I know I will need their grace, when it is their turn to teach me.
posted by eirias at 5:42 PM on September 2, 2019 [30 favorites]

Why did you ask if she was hungry? Because you were? Or you weren’t? Because you had dinner plans and wanted to leave early for the restaurant or perhaps delay? These are likely the things she considered, that is to say, the motivation behind your question.

Why didn’t you answer her question? You were so busy parsing “Now?” when you could have said, “Yes, I’m wondering if you are hungry now because I am/am not.”

She was really asking, “Why are you asking?” The polite thing to do would have been to answer her question. She was displaying some social intelligence in her comment.

I knew a man who would parse social situations like this. We dated and were close so he would often bring these troubling interpersonal interactions to me, to help him understand. Inevitably he was interacting with someone who was in a lesser position of power (a woman co-worker in his male-dominated profession, a female clerk, a man of color in some lower level position, etc). He brought a lot of entitlement and literalism to these interactions. He had a hard time understanding some social nuance.

It took me a long time to realize that he was the asshole. He was being pretty awful to people, putting them on the spot by challenging what they said, taking everything quite literally. He always judged people’s intelligence. I don’t know if he was unable or unwilling to do a bit of extra work in understanding people or how he challenged them in pretty aggressive ways.

I hope you aren’t doing that. Maybe ask your wife?

For what it’s worth, I’m someone with a lot of markers of intelligence — I’m well educated and well-traveled, white, in a professional job, and I speak unaccented American English; I’m a good writer and have a decent sized vocabulary — and yet I say dumb things all the time. Sometimes I’m absent-minded. Sometimes I’m distracted or otherwise not paying attention. Sometimes we’re talking about something where I don’t know much, and I’m not afraid for that to show. I’m curious and don’t mind when others know more.

So maybe pay some mind to social graces.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:34 PM on September 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

You asked about recomposing your face, but what comes through in these answers is that you have to start by recomposing your whole idea of yourself in relation to others. That's much harder and this thread must feel like a pile-on. As a recovering "smartest person in the room" who's living with someone similarly afflicted, here's a tip that might help: what people told you about how smart you are was a lie.
All your life, parents, teachers, friends, employers, everyone could see that knowledge/logic/smart is what you prize first and foremost, so they told you how smart you are to keep you happy/motivated/docile/compliant. They outsmarted you for their own purposes, like a gigolo telling a vain aging beauty she still looks like she's 20. Welcome to Stupidtown, dummy!
In truth, genius has a lot of components, including lateral thinking, dealing with abstract and illogical facts, intuition, emotional intelligence, sense of humour... You might not tick all the boxes, as your reaction to "Now?" (which others understood immediately) indicates. So when someone says something that strikes you as stupid - for the sake of avoiding embarrassment if nothing else - ask yourself if you might be the one missing something.
In most cases you will be, especially if you're talking to people with good social skills or communication abilities, who might not know as much trivia as you, but might easily predict your unspoken thoughts and motives and be a few steps ahead of you in the conversation. This is even more true when you're speaking to people socialized as women or in cultures where it's unacceptable to be direct or challenge someone's authority or intelligence, and who as a result develop extraordinarily subtle ways to communicate, including playing dumb and making jokes that will go right over your head.
posted by Freyja at 5:37 AM on September 3, 2019 [12 favorites]

It sounds like you are trying to think from an androgogical perspective; regardless of whether the people you're talking with have the same goals as you, in terms of teaching and learning, have you read any of the literature on educational psychology, or on how to teach effectively? You might want to skim Teaching Tech Together as an introduction to how to think about this sort of thing. Check out the chapter on Motivation and Demotivation.

Check out the Recurse Center's guidance on "feigned surprise" and look up the phrase "feigned surprise" online for more thoughts on the experience most people have -- including people actively trying to teach and learn facts and skills -- when someone acts surprised that they don't know something. I gave a speech about how the nurturing learning environment at the Recurse Center (formerly Hacker School) changed my understanding of how we make better learning environments for each other. You might find it helpful.
posted by brainwane at 6:37 AM on September 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

I can sum up everything going wrong in just a few words you wrote.

It was dinnertime.

No, "dinnertime" is not a set concept. It was dinnertime, perhaps, to YOU. Not necessarily to her. Not necessarily to me. Not even, necessarily, to you! Hunger is also a scale. Her question is quite reasonable in that to her dinner might not be for another hour yet this thought apparently isn't in your headspace which I find kind of puzzling.

"It is noon." is a statement of fact assuming that we're in a timezone where it is in fact noon at that moment and the unapplied words in that sentence are "It is noon (in this timezone) ((right now))." Yet, if I said to anyone in this thread assuming we were standing together, "It is noon." they would understand contextually that I meant now and in this particular region.

When you can understand how your (pretty odd in their being ramped to 11 for granularity and surety simultaneously) beliefs like "It was dinnertime." are imposing non-existent facts in subjective spaces, you might be closer to having an answer to your... I don't even know.

Her husband barely listens to her. He drones "yes dear" and she's content with that. If I were to similarly lower expectations and detach engagement - just gliding easily with less attention paid - I'd make things smoother too. She'd surely prefer that to watching me parse every banal utterance with what comes off as haughty disgust (despite my poker face).

This is incredibly, deeply unpleasant. Please, try to understand why and retool your thoughts away from such disgust because it is not a cute look. Or, what I'm thinking right now, "It must be very hard to be the SMARTEST man on the planet."

edit: And how long does your brain take to process Are you hungry? --> Now? --> Yes, I did mean right now. The more I read it, the more it seems like maybe go talk to a doctor.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:28 AM on September 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, don't worry so much about categorizing other people-- and don't worry about being categorized, yourself! A conversation doesn't have to be something where you are performing and that performance is being judged. Well, it might be if you have a very manipulative boss at work whose every word is encoded and who is looking to see how you're going to respond. But in a social situation you can say, "What do you mean?" or "Let me think about that." Or even, "I'm surprised you would say that." But you can be honest. Several people have noted that you sound judgmental and I know when I'm feeling judgmental there is an accompanying feeling that I am apt to be judged.
posted by BibiRose at 10:19 AM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Quisp Lover, I feel like there's a little piling on taking place here. My impression is that, at least in this case, you may have some difficulty in picking up on social cues and understanding social conventions.

If this is a more widespread challenge than just this example case, it may be worth exploring whether you have any ASD characteristics. Lots of people do but never know, and end up facing these challenges without any assistance in developing strategies that work for them. (Needless to say, I could be widely off the mark here. Interpreting internet posts is imprecise at best.)
posted by slkinsey at 12:10 PM on September 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

If someone asks if I'm hungry, it's generally a lead-in to a conversation about getting food. People generally don't speak in a directed decision tree in conversations, and your friend's wife skipped ahead. When you said "Are you hungry?" she made an assumption that you were thinking about getting some food and jumped ahead to ask whether you meant right now, or were attempting to plan ahead.

What you perceive as her husband's disinterest in conversation, or dismissal of her statements, might be their social dynamic. She might be taking more of a lead, and his brief responses are acknowledgment. I had a college roommate that was less of a talker than I and we'd make plans or come to a consensus with a handful of words and a gesture at the door. My ability to mumble "Food?" and gesture toward the door wasn't a judgment on my intellect or his -- he's highly intelligent.
"Hungry?" "Now?" "Pizza?" "Yeah" "Ok, I'll drive."

Personal conversations don't need to follow Robert's Rules of Order and I feel like you're projecting a lot of other assumptions on to an innocuous exchange. When you said that someone was saying something "dumb" I assumed an otherwise intelligent person was dropping bigoted comments into conversation, or hurrying through a description in a way that they misunderstood basic physics. It sounds like you don't like casual conversation and like to flex your rhetorical skills. It sounds tiring.
posted by mikeh at 12:35 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hello, I am somebody who has difficulty with taking people’s verbal communications too literally. Before I grokked fully how this was my problem, I thought the fault was the speakers, and sometimes the way I talked about those failures is similar to some of the thoughts expressed by OP.

Some helpful tips I have learned to manage this interaction challenge:

- Vocal communication carries very little text, but quite a bit of important sub-text. Don’t get hung up on the text. You’re missing the point. Talking is 80% oblique. Few of the things we say aloud, even the clever things, stand up to very rigorous clause by clause scrutiny. It’s all implication and simile and you know what I mean and so forth.

- Don’t watch people’s lips when they speak. The more educational aperture is the eye holes.

- In general, with very narrow (but very important) exceptions, everybody is always wrong about everything. This should be a given. Expressing surprise when people are wrong suggests working from a bad premise. Being wrong is basically a human being’s job description. If you are under the impression that you are more frequently correct than incorrect, your intellectual humility may be out of order and requiring a re-calibration.

- Expressions of contempt, whether vocal or facial, telegraph nothing that helps a conversation, relationship, debate or negotiation. Ever. Full stop. When wrestling with contempt, refocus and remember that the malodorous emotion is wafting from you, not the speaker.
posted by Construction Concern at 3:45 PM on September 3, 2019 [12 favorites]

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