Actually, the question is, “How smart do others think you are?” How to Look Smarter was a recent article in the WSJ. The fascinating premise is that no matter how smart you may be, behaving in certain ways can cause others to perceive you as not so smart. It’s often when people are trying to look smart that their actions and words backfire.
I especially liked the point that using big words doesn’t make people think you’re smart: “…positive first impressions may be shattered, however, as soon as pretentious language starts interfering with others’ ability to understand and communicate with you. People who embellish their writing with long, complicated words are seen as less intelligent by readers, according to a 2006 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology.”
As a communications professional in a large corporation, I have long advocated the use of what I call “kitchen English.” When you’re trying to explain a point, either in writing or in a conversation, you want the audience to understand you easily. You don’t want them struggling to figure out what you mean or thinking you're unnecessarily wordy, confusing or uppity.
When I read the example of someone repeatedly using the word ubiquitous because they’d just learned it, I laughed aloud and was reminded of one of my college English professors crossing through the word utilize on my paper and writing, “why not simply say use?” Perhaps that’s what started me on my path to promoting kitchen English.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy learning new words and using them in scrabble and WWF; I just don’t sprinkle them throughout my daily conversations either at work or socially. I have a subscription to A Word a Day and enjoy their emails with intriguing words and quotes. And I routinely refer to myself as a word nerd and grammar geek, but that’s more about being interested in words, keeping a dictionary handy and wanting to use words properly, not about wanting to show off.
Does it tickle me when a friend emails or calls me to ask about a word? Well yes, but honestly if you read as many books as I do and you taught high school English in a past life as I did, you ought to know more words than the average bear. I still laugh when I think about the phone call I got one evening from a friend laughing with her husband and another friend. She said they were debating how to conjugate the word spin, and she just knew I’d have the answer. I don’t know that I’d ever conjugated the word before, but I compared it to drink, drank, drunk and so came up with the right answer—spin, span, have spun.
What other behaviors should you avoid if you want to appear smart? Talking too much, too loudly or trying to look serious. Once you nail how to converse more clearly and confidently and how to engage others by nodding, asking them questions and letting them get a word in edgewise, your natural intelligence can shine through.
There are, however, still some age-old stereotypes about intelligence. Yup, wearing glasses or having a middle initial in your name will make folks initially perceive you as intelligent. Just don’t blow that first impression by over talking, using big words or trying to refrain from gesturing with your hands and arms. The good news for me is I use my middle initial so that my maiden name isn’t lost, I have no choice but to wear cheaters, I use kitchen English and I talk with my hands. That should translate into folks thinking I’m pretty darned smart, at least when they first meet me. Let’s hope it extends beyond that.