That smarts
May 27, 2008 12:14 PM   Subscribe

What are some good parameters to use when judging someone's intelligence on the fly?

I tend to go by someone's mastery of context, like how quickly they pick up on jokes, extended use of metaphors, the phrasing of questions they ask, their ability to reframe something new they just picked up on, etc.

What are some other things to look for?
posted by Christ, what an asshole to Human Relations (32 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This thread had a lot of good answers to that question, as I recall.
posted by limeonaire at 12:22 PM on May 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Loud/talkative = not intelligent. Start there and refine your judgment as you see fit.
posted by wabashbdw at 12:24 PM on May 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Curiosity about the world. You can see a lot of things, but if you don't willingly have your eyes open, you won't actually pick up on much. It shows.

Example: I have friend who has waited tables for about 10 years. When he and I go out to dinner together, he still struggles over the tip. That tells me that for every table he waits on, he has no clue what the tip should be, or if he's getting screwed. And furthermore, he doesn't really care, cause it's just "too much work" to figure it out when he's got 50 other things to do. Then again, he's wicked funny and so likable (which are senses of 'smart' unto their own) that he makes up for it. I guess my point is, there's no one metric.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:25 PM on May 27, 2008

This is a slippery slope you're headed down, I'm afraid.

Intelligences and personalities come in so many different flavours that there is absolutely no way to judge this from their behaviour around you. So many confounding things arise with people - what if they're socially anxious? They may not pick up on your jokes. What if they have a different sense of humour? What if they ask questions in simplistic ways because they've just learned to interact with people based on simple phrasing wheras your criteria for judgment is an extended use of sophisticated vocabulary?

Even in the scientific profession, with standardized procedures and stimuli the question of judging intelligence is veiled by a shroud of questionable legitimacy. Certainly with the informal method of conversation, as you wish to do, this becomes even more confounded, and less legitimate.

In other words: you ought not to try judging the "intelligence" of others.
posted by tybeet at 12:28 PM on May 27, 2008 [6 favorites]

@wabashbdw: you've described an extrovert, not a dullard.
posted by tybeet at 12:29 PM on May 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Range of vocabulary, proper pronunciation, choice of cultural references (say... 'The Daily Show' rather than 'Keeping Up With The Kardashians'), lack of visible ego (smart enough to know they don't know everything), generally abreast of current events, tuned sarcasm meter, etc.

However, as other have stated above me, none of these work or even mean someone is 'smart'. It just happens to be a few of the biased metrics I use to determine if someone is 'smart', even though my judgement has no bearing on the reality of the situation. It is very possible that there are some very smart people walking around who stick to words five letters or less, couldn't be bothered to learn their pronunciation, spend all day in front of the E channel, think they're the greatest thing since Denise Richards got her own reality show, think Myanmar is a band they heard on KROQ, and wouldn't be able to tell if I was being facetious when I told them how much I loved the latest Sexy Celebrity Countdown. However, I would not want to hang out with that person.

posted by rooftop secrets at 12:32 PM on May 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Forget intelligence, try kindness. That is the better rubric and may be one that has saved more people. To elaborate, I have known some mighty intelligent people as measured by external markers like degrees, test scores and salary, but some simply fail the test with their tendency to turn in their neighbors for the "intelligent" choice of cost benefit to themselves analysis.
posted by jadepearl at 12:33 PM on May 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Do you believe in astrology?
posted by ND¢ at 12:38 PM on May 27, 2008 [5 favorites]

Ask them followup questions about anything they might casually mention. Anybody can have read the wikipedia page about some random thing but if they can put it in a bigger context of meaning or importance, or relate it to other things, then that shows true smarts.
posted by Space Coyote at 12:42 PM on May 27, 2008

Going to be nice and answer this straight, here is a trick I've seen used in job interviews:

Bring up a topic they know nothing about, then ask their opinion. See how they handle it - if they ask questions, what kind of questions, do they perceive the nuances, generalize from similar topics in their experience, etc. Basically, see if this is someone who has a good intellectual framework for processing and acting on information.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 1:04 PM on May 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Loud/talkative = not intelligent. Start there and refine your judgment as you see fit.

I have to object to this one, and I'm a pretty quiet person. Sure, intelligence and introversion are correlated, but by no means is one contingent upon the other. Some people are smart both at intellectual matters and at engaging an audience. Likewise, some people who don't volunteer their thoughts simply have nothing to volunteer.
posted by decagon at 1:11 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

One's vocabulary is a pretty big clue-off to me. Also, if they tend to believe everything they hear (i.e. "I heard global warming is just a scam by the liberal media" or "I heard we actually won the Vietnam War") without taking it with a grain of salt or citing legitimate sources, I tend to believe they are foolish, ignorant, or lazy.

Same thing with racism or any religious prejudice. That clues me off pretty fast as to their level of intelligence, or at least to the fact that they don't question things they should be questioning.
posted by np312 at 1:23 PM on May 27, 2008

People who value getting along well with others, and are able to do so, are demonstrating intelligence, because the benefit they receive from doing so is enormous. This means adapting to fit one's social milieu, which means not always using huge words or referencing the latest thing you heard on NPR.

A lot of things you're going to hear are class indicators more than they are intelligence indicators. Really, now--does one need to watch the same TV as you to be a smart person? I don't think so.
posted by sondrialiac at 1:34 PM on May 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

I think you might examine your motives for doing this (I know this was not the question asked). I do this A LOT, and it pisses people off. I'm trying to avoid it. Some seemingly stupid people are very smart. I also worked for a dean at a prestigious medical school in a big town that rhymes with nauston, and she was dumb as a doornail.
posted by sully75 at 1:36 PM on May 27, 2008

The rule I've always used is:

If you can't figure out how smart someone is after about 2 minutes of communication, chances are they are way more intelligent than you.

Also...just for my own curiosity...why do you want to do this? No offense, but seems like ass-holey. Its a good way to alienate people, or to unnecessarily trust strangers in a professional environment.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:36 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

My motives are pretty simple: I aim to talk to people on their level. And usually it comes naturally, be it intelligence, vocation, cultural background, or what have you. Intelligence is tricky, because if I'm trying to make a sale, I can turn someone off by being too abstract. Other times I can turn them off by being too simple. I tend to mirror people, but heuristics to beat them to the destination work to my advantage. I usually drop feelers to gauge people, but sometimes even those seem antagonistic if they're not well received.

I'm basically looking for shortcuts to be a better communicator.
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 1:59 PM on May 27, 2008

Christ, what an asshole: Intelligence is tricky, because if I'm trying to make a sale, I can turn someone off by being too abstract. Other times I can turn them off by being too simple.

Ah, but what about the smart people that prefer simplicity in communication and the idiot who like to abstract everything?

I agree with what most people are saying above: intelligence just isn't as important in casual conversation as lots of other things.
posted by philomathoholic at 2:24 PM on May 27, 2008

Use of mixed metaphors always tips me off that someone's not that bright.

But in general, I use myself as a gauge. I consider myself fairly intelligent, so if I'm with someone and I take notice of their intelligence - as in, I consciously recognize that they're either more or less intelligent than me - that's how I know either way. If I don't notice at all, it means that we're on par intellectually.
posted by FlyByDay at 2:40 PM on May 27, 2008

Measuring intelligence to become a better communicator seems like a bad idea to me. You're current criteria would totally dismiss a highly intelligent multi-lingual person or anyone with a cultural background different from the ones you're familiar with. If you're trying this in NYC, that's a huge problem.

When I try to communicate technical ideas to civilians, I try to reinforce the idea that I just happen to know a lot about x and their lack of knowledge about x doesn't make them stupid or deficient. I don't know a lot about y, I'm just an x expert. This attitude usually puts people at ease and allows them to trust you.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 3:22 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Knowledge, as opposed to intelligence, could be a confounding factor if we're talking about communication. Fairly intelligent people can nevertheless be quite ignorant of particular topics, and might appreciate a simplified approach. (I'm thinking here of things like explaining new software to my parents, or having my history-and-politics-buff friends explain the finer points of international diplomacy to me.) Perhaps you could try to ferret out someone's areas of expertise and frame your conversation based on that?
posted by fermion at 3:36 PM on May 27, 2008

[a few comments removed - don't be jerks, go home and admire yourself in the mirror or something, not cool here.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:40 PM on May 27, 2008

Loud/talkative = not intelligent. Start there and refine your judgment as you see fit.

Gee, that sounds...stupid.

I don't believe that there is any way to judge intelligence "on the fly." If you attempt to do this you will end up with equations like the one above, which are pretty much useless. Intelligence is a tricky thing - someone can be verbally astute and deficient in logic, for example. I think the entire IQ thing has been pretty much debunked by now anyway.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:16 PM on May 27, 2008

There's no real way to judge it on the fly. Loud and talkative doesn't mean not intelligent. I know many people who are loud and talkative and who are some of the most intelligent people I've ever met.
posted by majikstreet at 4:44 PM on May 27, 2008

Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I realize it's a pretty useless indicator for anything.

The thought came to me last night because I was dealing with a client who seemed articulate, but a basic analogy I used flew way over his head.

Which kind of emboldens the point that smarts aren't necessarily consistent across the spectrum.
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 4:45 PM on May 27, 2008

Stereotypes. Base your judgments all on pure stereotypes.

Actually - let me revise that. I meant, I don't think there is any true way to make such judgments with your time constraints and for your purposes, and that any way suggested is likely just as arbitrary as judgments based on stereotypes.
posted by jabberjaw at 5:03 PM on May 27, 2008

Geez, I am really demonstrably bad at this. A lot of false positives, and false negatives. When I get it right--and form an opinion that withstands repeated meetings--it's usually because the person has shown one or more of the following:

Tolerance for ambiguity;
Ability to attack and dissect ideas, while not attacking the people who present them;
Recognition and acknowledgment of blind spots;
Interest in the roots of ideas, or their potential consequences;
Ability to see from another's perspective.
And--a big one--the ability to reframe a problem to make its solution clear.

I'm kind of used to people forming a wrong opinion of my intelligence--in either direction-- because I was either glib and quick; or stuck in my head and tongue-tied. There's almost no situation outside of some aspects of work where it's important, or helpful, for people to decide on the fly about someone's intelligence. There are a lot of valuable--and predictive--characteristics that should come first: socially intelligent, aware, motivated, optimistic, honorable, kind...

Aah hell with it. Just go with the Amazing Jonathan's "giant round orange head" joke [fourth one down, nsfw] and see if they laugh.
posted by Phred182 at 5:18 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Someone might be highly intelligent by traditional measures of "g" or in a technical field but have poor social skills* or social phobia, hence they sound less intelligent in casual conversation or an interview than they are.

*Whether neurological or the product of a culturally impoverished upbringing and education. A person who sounds highly intelligent in conversation may well have had a privileged background, not to suggest that lower-income or disadvantaged people can't sound intelligent.
posted by bad grammar at 6:21 PM on May 27, 2008

Use of mixed metaphors always tips me off that someone's not that bright.

But in general, I use myself as a gauge [...] it means that we're on par intellectually.

So, whilst playing golf you use a physical measuring device to test luminescence? That's a trick almost worthy of MacGyver himself!

But back to the topic, based on the OP's followup:

Intelligence is tricky, because if I'm trying to make a sale, I can turn someone off by being too abstract. Other times I can turn them off by being too simple. I tend to mirror people

Treating this as the meat of the question, my diagnosis of hidden undercurrent of your impasse is that you are struggling too hard to zoom in on one single essence of "intelligence".

Instead of having such a one-tracked model, you should reflect that there are different flavours of intelligence, so your goal should be to ape the particular style of brightness exhibited by the target of your sales approach.

For example, the Myers-Briggs blueprint for personality types elaborates a split between people who love concrete detail, and people whose taste is more for abstract theorising. In a nutshell, this echoes what you were talking about when you said that being either too simple or too abstract might create a wall between you and your budding customer.

The crux of my suggestion is that you shouldn't be grasping onto whether they are sharp as a tack or dull as a donkey, but instead you should learn to express yourself in both modes - throw out an abstract line, and if their eyes glaze over, then hit them with a concrete example. You'll soon get a feel for their preferred intellectual home-ground, and you can proceed from there.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:04 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Echoing what I said about five comments ago. :)
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 9:35 PM on May 27, 2008

One of my favorite metrics is seeing how insistent someone is on coming to a conclusion in the face of limited information. If someone is engaged (as opposed to uninterested), and the subject is non-urgent, yet the person jumps to a conclusion, I'll take it as a sign of low intelligence. Now it could also indicate low self-esteem or laziness, but that takes longer to assess and in the short term, there's not much difference.
posted by yath at 2:35 AM on May 28, 2008

If you're not a job interviewer is this necessary? Very intelligent people in some ways can find ways to be stupid about other things..
posted by citron at 6:05 AM on May 28, 2008

yath: No good. Some people are skilled and inclined to always form conclusions based on available data, and continuously update those conclusions as more data accumulate. The ones who stick too strongly to original conclusion are the less bright, IMO.

I tend to say things that should result in questions. Then I base my notions on the questions (or lack of questions). With an array of such things that should span various interests, you should form a reasonable picture. This assumes, of course, that communication is happening reasonably well.
posted by Goofyy at 6:37 AM on May 29, 2008

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