An awkward yet common situation that I’ve witnessed at MIT is one in which someone is accused of being intelligent. While grateful for such charitable perceptions, the accused is often left speechless, befuddled or even reflexively defensive. This post is not about how I feel about said accusations, the veracity of such claims, or my perceptions of the people who make them. Rather, this is a discussion of different response strategies that I have field-tested against the 30 - 40 times that I have had such claims made about me.
A typical exchange goes as follows:
New Acquaintance: So, what do you do for a living?
Me: I’m a grad student at MIT.
Acquaintance or bystander: Wow, you must be really smart!
Herein, the declaration is made in its most common fashion. Note: be aware of equivalent variations, such as the rhetorical question: “So you must be pretty clever then, right?” or the subtle roast: “Heyo, nerd alert over here!” Also note: allegations can be made at any point in the conversation (for example, after telling them what you study), so always be vigilant.
After marking their territory, your interlocutor usually doesn’t have more to add. Thus, the burden falls on you to handle the situation they created and avoid a social catastrophe. Broadly speaking, there are at least four methods of responding.
1. The awkward laughter followed by a bait-and-switch
As the name suggests, this involves a slight chuckle followed by a change in topic. Timing is everything. Jumping right into the switch makes you seem too eager to move on and taking too long of a pause makes you appear socially incompetent. Having an exit is key. Feel free to use any of the following techniques when casting your bait:
- Small talk: So, have you heard about climate change?
- Distraction: Did you just see that?
- Reflection: Hey, I like your shirt.
This method is probably the most widely used due to its versatility. It can be deployed in almost any situation to minimize (but not totally eliminate) discomfort. Option C is good because it reverses the spotlight. Now they have to defend their shirt choice.
2. Accept and confirm their suspicions
Agree with the accuser and then tell them that your IQ is somewhere between 120 and 160. This would be classified as an “alpha (α) move” and is best used when you sense they are being smug or disingenuous. This strategy can help establish your position in the social hierarchy, but also increases the risk of conflict and opposition. The accuser could potentially challenge you further or, worse, actually believe you. I was once asked to fix someone’s computer after using this method. I was not able to. Employ at your own risk.
3. Deny all of their presuppositions
Live to shatter expectations, break glass ceilings and refuse stereotyping. The goal of this strategy is to disprove the hypothesis of your acquaintance. Some ways to do this include: yelling profanities, speaking incoherently, holding blatantly contradictory opinions, or simply coming off as unintelligent as possible. A colleague of mine regularly makes proclamations of being a “man of the people”. This has varying success but works relatively well around Cambridge, where most people don’t actually know what that means and will take it at face value. If your move is executed convincingly, the accuser will feel that they have misapprehended you and quickly shift the focus of the conversation.
4. Avoid the situation entirely
At all costs, steer clear of telling them what you actually do and where. For example, here are some synonyms you can use when asked about your life:
- Grad School = “In between jobs”
- MIT = “A tech school in Middlesex county”
- Your major = “I forget”
Whatever you do, make sure you commit to it. If you look evasive and your cover is later blown, you can come off as pompous. This is where I see so many people go wrong. They give in to follow-up questions, which lands them in the situation they were trying to avoid. If need be, just cut off contact with this person and any mutual associates — or drop out of college.
The techniques above have helped me tremendously in navigating the social landscape. As a final word of caution, use the above methods with discretion. I take no responsibility for any unintended consequences.