This is a variation on our need to win. We need to win people’s admiration. We need to let them know that we are at least their intellectual equal if not their superior. We need to be the smartest person in the room, the sharpest knife in the drawer. It usually backfires.
Many of us do this covertly and unwittingly all day long. We do it whenever we agree with someone offering us some practical advice, whenever we nod our heads impatiently while people are talking, whenever our body language suggests that we are not hearing something we haven’t heard before.
We do this more overtly when we tell someone, “I already knew that” or we say “I think someone told me that,” to the sarcastic, “I didn’t need to hear that,” to the downright arrogant, “I’m five steps ahead of you.” The problem here is not that we are merely boasting about how much we know. We are insulting the other person.
MBA students always compete in class and in their group sessions to show off how smart they are. In some business schools there are marks allocated for class participation, basically showing off how smart you are in class will earn you higher marks.
On completion of their MBA degrees, these students will show off their smartness in conferences or workshops by asking “smart questions” sometimes even asking questions they already know the answers to.
These are people who tend to use knowledge as therapy. There is a cliche that says the only way to know that a person has an MBA degree is that they will tell you they have an MBA.
Social media is a classic evidence of how people compete to show the world how smart they are. Twitter is a platform where occasionally people will argue about issues and more often it is about a competition of their smartness, and not necessarily about the real issues.
To some people a tweet is an invitation to argue and show off their smartness.
What we are really saying is by this behaviour:
“You really didn’t need to waste my time with that information. You think it’s an insight that I haven’t heard before. But I agree with you and totally understand what you are saying. You mistake me, the ever so wise and lovely me, for someone who needs to hear what you are saying right now. I am not that person. You are confused. You have no idea how smart I am.”
Imagine if someone actually said all that to your face. You will think they are losers. But that’s what people hear (and think) when you say, “I already knew that.” You are better off hearing them out and saying nothing at all. The paradox is that this need to demonstrate how smart we are rarely hits its intended target.
Being smart turns people on. Announcing how smart you are turns them off.
So, how do you tone down the need to tell the world how smart you are? The first step is recognising your behaviour. Have you ever done this? Stopping this behaviour is not hard, a three step drill in which you :
(a) Pause before opening your mouth to ask yourself, “Is anything that I say worth it?
(b) Conclude that it is not; and
(c) Say, “Thank you.”
There is nothing wrong with being smart, but how you brandish it in the face of others show lack of emotional smartness.