What defines sophistication?
March 19, 2008 4:01 PM   Subscribe

What exact characteristic(s) make someone appear polished and sophisticated?

Actors, executives and politicians often seem so polished and sophisticated compared to "regular people." What exactly is it that makes them give off that vibe?

It's not necessarily because we know they're famous, rich, or powerful. I pick up the same sense around people I just met, before realizing that they are famous, rich, or powerful. Not all famous, rich, or powerful people have it either. For example, Pierce Brosnan has it, but Roseanne Barr doesn't. Barack Obama has it, but George Bush doesn't.

It must be something in the way they dress, or speak, or carry themselves. But what?
posted by amfea to Human Relations (28 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
I think, to go with a wild generalization since you are mentioning so many different types of people here, that a lot of it has to do with these people seeming comfortable in their own skin--everything they do seems to flow smoothly and naturally, so much so that you feel gauche and awkward in comparison.
posted by misha at 4:03 PM on March 19, 2008

Its a certantity in how they hold themselves. Expensive looking yet understated accesories. A refined speech pattern. Clear skin, bright eyes, white teeth. Pressed clothing, absolutely spotless everything.

The people I know who look like this spend a lot of time making sure they look impeccable.
posted by stormygrey at 4:04 PM on March 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

For me it's the accent. There was a post not long ago about how a person found people with British accents more.. classy, which you may find interesting.

I have since become more aware of my southern accent and make more of an effort not to use it.
posted by Sufi at 4:16 PM on March 19, 2008

I'm not sure accent was the word I was looking for. Substitute accent with "the way they speak".
posted by Sufi at 4:18 PM on March 19, 2008

Have to disagree about the accent. Plenty of Southerners are polished and have a pronounced accent. I believe it is how you USE that accent. What you say, the words you choose and correct grammar and word usage are much more important than accent. I will agree that plenty of people from all over (the south included) can really sound like a horse's ass but accent isn't always the reason.

Also, confidence, ability to listen and focus on others, clean, neat appearence. In other words, good grooming.
posted by pearlybob at 4:23 PM on March 19, 2008

I think an unflappable calmness and confidence are key. Whether they go to a meal that involves five forks or whether a homeless guy pukes on their shoes, there's no question they can handle it without getting rattled.
posted by booksandlibretti at 4:24 PM on March 19, 2008 [10 favorites]

Ok Sufi, I'll go with that. I think we're thinking along the same lines.
posted by pearlybob at 4:25 PM on March 19, 2008

I think speech is 70% of what you're observing, the rest is dress, manners, bearing.

Refined speech isn't loud, but grabs your attention because it's well enunciated, doesn't ramble or stumble, doesn't use too much slang, if accented it's still clear and never annoying/nasal sounding, and of course makes the point quickly and elegantly. A slightly deeper voice is usually more respected (goes for women, too). Big words are a nice way of showing you went to college, but not necessary or sufficient for being well spoken.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:25 PM on March 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

Speaking without slang, repetition, or verbal tics (few "um's", "er's", "like's", or "yeah's"). Speaking with clarity, without exaggerated slowness. A "upper class" accent helps, but won't make someone appear smart over a long period of time (in short conversations it probably helps - perhaps that works for some actors). Having a slightly larger vocabulary than usual. Some understanding of rhetoric. Care, understanding, expertise, and passion in what you are talking about (a fascinating study recently concluded at that George W. is more likely to make verbal mistakes (his "Bushisms") when he doesn't care about the subject at hand.) Perhaps most importantly, knowing when to keep quiet.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 4:29 PM on March 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

They are practiced. That is, they don't stumble, over their words or their actions. They have thought out a response for any situation that might come up and rehearsed it so they can do it smoothly. For this reason, nothing fazes them.
posted by kindall at 4:40 PM on March 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Proper grammar, ability to speak and maintain eye contact. Nice vocabulary (impressive words, but not over the top). Natural poise and confidence.
posted by maxg94 at 4:43 PM on March 19, 2008

It all boils down to "manners" or "etiquette," the power of polite.
posted by Max Power at 4:51 PM on March 19, 2008

And, despite being so obviously superior, the pay attention to you. They look right at you as you voice your dim thoughts, and they actually respond to what you say, or even kindlier, what you meant to say.
posted by hexatron at 5:04 PM on March 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

And, despite being so obviously superior, the pay attention to you. They look right at you as you voice your dim thoughts, and they actually respond to what you say, or even kindlier, what you meant to say.

I just saw a perfect example of this this morning - watch, in that linked clip; Clinton pretty much locks his eyes on the questioner and never lets go. It's almost unsettling, but amazing.
posted by joshuaconner at 5:11 PM on March 19, 2008 [6 favorites]

In addition to manners and calm, articulate, grammatical speech:
Good posture and smooth, sparse movements. You won't catch them scratching or tapping their feet or twirling pens.
posted by bassjump at 5:12 PM on March 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

I've watched hundreds of hours of oral arguments from lawyers and law students, and feel I can isolate about 80% of that impression of calm confidence to a limited number of habits. I think these lessons apply almost universally. All of these points take practice, of course.

1) Take a natural balanced stance (feet under shoulders, weight balanced). Keep your spine straight. Unless you are called upon to walk around, keep all motion focused in hands and face.

2) Gestures: In modified "strike zone" above your waist, below your shoulders, in front of your body. Palms turned in or down (calming gestures), not turned up or clasping (pleading gestures).

3) Face: Intentionally relax forehead muscles so that you are not communicating fear or anger.

1) Intentionally relax your throat (imagine that you are "dropping" those muscles). Intentionally relax your belly (unless you are in form-fitting clothes, jut out your belly a bit).

2) Speak slowly. If you have been told you speak quickly, speak so that you feel a bit like a freak. Don't lose your natural intonation as you slow down.

3) Intentionally eliminate all "ums" and "uhs." We use these as placeholders to tell the listener not to jump in and interrupt. Of course, if you are in a position of power, you don't need these. No one would think to interrupt you. (One of the easiest and most powerful ways to demonstrate a dominant position is to create a silence you know no one will interrupt.)
posted by ferdydurke at 6:11 PM on March 19, 2008 [78 favorites]

poise, charisma, and posture.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:50 PM on March 19, 2008

My instant, Gladwell-style "Blink" answer to this was roughly the same as booksandlibretti's: unflappableness.

Whatever happens, they display confidence and deal with it rather than panicking, hesitating, prevaricating, wavering, etc.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:59 PM on March 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

"IF" by Rudyard Kipling

seemed appropriate here.
posted by misha at 7:00 PM on March 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

The eyes.

Slight wrinkling along the outside edge; sharing a private joke with you.

And what everyone else said; speech patterns, posture, and true confidence because they've been in those spots before and came out good.
posted by porpoise at 8:14 PM on March 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Posture has a lot to do with it. Eye contact, good grooming, confidence as expressed through body language and voice. Nothing extreme. No throw-your-head-back-and-laugh behavior. They don't seem to have an extreme sense of urgency or slothfullness (my Firefox spell check is telling me that's not a word...can a poor speller ever be considered sophisticated?) when they do something and they usually don't complain.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:58 PM on March 19, 2008

Sophisticated people age naturally and gracefully. No weird plastic surgery.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:03 PM on March 19, 2008

It is all in how comfortable they are in talking with you.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:29 PM on March 19, 2008

Charisma, baby ;)

If you've got 'it' you could be coated head to toe in mud and still shine.

And if you don't... all the snazzy suits in the world ain't changin' nutin .

Confident, comfortable and at ease with themselves. It's very attractive, like maybe it might rub off and others could be content like that too or something? Plus the fact that they're instinctively very enchanting...
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 4:47 AM on March 20, 2008

A certain amount of style and taste in clothing, hair, jewelry is a baseline, I think; this doesn't mean one should be the epitome of fashion, but garish or ill-chosen, ill-fitting, distracting clothing and accessories very much ruin the impression you're asking about. Understated and elegant wins the day. To go along with that, good grooming is important, though looking as though one just walked out of a salon is not the goal... think of it more as the eye of the observer not catching on ragged nails, dandruff flakes, badly applied makeup, twisted seams, sagging hemlines, fraying cuffs, etc. - or likewise, ostentatiously expensive clothing, jewelry, manicure, etc.; when somebody looks at you, they shouldn't be distracted by details either flashy or shabby, and the whole effect should be harmonious, but not bland. Don't have an unusual hairdo, significant jewelry, gorgeous silk scarf/tie, bright red lipstick or nails (for women) - choose one thing, and let the rest defer and play off that, generally speaking. When in doubt, understate - but with quality, as far as you are able to afford it.

From there, one should concentrate on physical poise - good posture, smooth movements, no picking or pulling at yourself or drumming your fingers or nails on the table, no kicking your crossed leg up and down or fiddling with your hair. Shoulders back, head up, hair out of your face, just like your mother told you. Watch what you do with your hands and arms. Try to avoid defensive postures with your arms held in front of your chest; don't look like you are trying to cover your face with your hands while you're talking, or even just sitting around. Don't stuff your hands into your pockets and push your chin down like you are trying to retract into a shell; don't jingle the change in your pockets, constantly hitch up your pants or pull down your blouse/shirt. Avoid jerky movements of all kinds. What you want is a calm and graceful/fluid confident physical presence.

Okay, so that was the easy stuff! Real sophistication means that one has at least a somewhat complex understanding or appreciation of many subjects/areas - and, in fact, the brain is the most important organ to exercise if you want to be truly sophisticated. You could actually get all the rest of it completely wrong and still be recognized as extremely sophisticated if you have a good mind and deep and subtle intelligence. Sophisticated people are observant; they notice things and see how they relate to each other; they are educated (even if self-educated) and curious. They won't settle for a basic minimum in information - they look for shades, hues, shadows, background - the "when", "why", and "how" underlying the "what" or "who" of anything, and they cast their (mental) nets wide.

Sophisticated people are also self-aware; they won't be the ones telling the same joke or anecdote for 50th time, unpleasantly dominating a conversation, or boasting about themselves. They are not the sort of people to accidentally insult someone, or constantly be misunderstood - because they are mindful of what they say and how they say it. As in dressing well, they know how to hold back, and not try to get attention with the loudest or most colorful comments; as they have grace and fluidity of movement and posture, so are also fluid in speech and will not use filler phrases ("um", "er", "like", etc.) or sloppy slang; as with information, they don't settle for simplest, most obvious comments or responses - in conversation as in education, they will connect information and their underlying meaning to create a fuller picture.

In manner, a sophisticated person is usually relaxed and confident, but it's important not to confuse confidence with cockiness. Generally speaking, sophisticated people don't show off or seek attention... I think most of them take it for granted that they will be noticed/taken seriously, so they don't feel the need to prove something about themselves. But when they do speak, they step up to the plate with something interesting, amusing, intelligent... even if it's just a well-timed shrug, smile or raised eyebrow, their communication has zest - and much of this really goes back to the well-honed mind, as well as presence and some flair for delivery.

Not very many people are that sophisticated - because, really, it's a sort of overwhelming checklist. But it's easy not to overdress or underdress; it's fairly easy to try to make your appearance be one of quality instead of fad/fashion; it's always a good idea to improve your mind, expand your horizons, and look deeper at everything. It's not too hard to pay attention to your manners, speech and bearing, and to be observant and responsive to the reactions and impressions from those around you - and maybe work on tamping down or slightly firing up your conversation, if you suspect you are a bit too aggressive, or too banal.

Like anything else, it's a lot of small things. And of course, what I've described is just an impossibly general idea of a lot of combined elements of what might be "sophistication" - but there are a million different tweaks and combinations and elements of personal originality that might make any one person seem sophisticated ... in fact, just being blandly sophisticated in the sense of adhering to every principle of supposed sophistication listed above wouldn't be at all sophisticated. So these are very general concepts, and with the nice mind that looks at all sorts of ideas and what they really mean, you will work out for yourself how sophisticated you really want to be. And when. And with whom. And why.
posted by taz at 8:27 AM on March 20, 2008 [20 favorites]

joshuaconner - The Clinton link blew me away. He certainly embodied many of the attributes people have outlined.

Additionally, something that I note in correspondence with speaking to people I find sophisticated, like MeFittes have noted, is the listening factor. Sophisticated people often follow through by asking questions that indicate that they are actively listening -- not waiting for their chance to speak.
posted by caveat empress at 9:00 AM on March 20, 2008

It's confidence, personality, and the ability to communicate with others. If you know exactly what to say (or at least what sounds good) and are capable of expressing your feelings, while also being aware of how you sound, then you will be able to come off as "sophisticated". You're example of Barack Obama and George Bush is an excellent metaphor of this.
posted by Kyokusen at 10:31 PM on March 20, 2008

The dignity of a diplomat may be related to the fact that what he must not do is to inadvertently offend. A good diplomat is therefore well-groomed and polite, but also has a reserved quality needed to not make mis-steps. They seldom offer their own opinions, which is often interpreted as knowing more than they actually do. This is compounded by their necessary discretion on matters they do know of.

Sophistry itself had a reputation of argument for its own sake. A good sophisticate may present an opinion, but must be able to support it through an undeniable mastery of the material. Wine and music are good examples; each is based in subjective experience, and thus the validity of the opinion is difficult to objectively evaluate.

Regardless, the presentation must be dignified. A rant is never sophisticated.
posted by dragonsi55 at 8:34 AM on March 21, 2008

« Older How do I make prints of my artwork for resale?   |   Mix folders and files alphabetically in XP Details... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.