Social Mistakes Intellectual People Can Make

Being smart is great. Smart people have an easier time of life and contribute more to the world. I think everyone should develop their intellect. However, there are some social mistakes that are mainly made by people who identify as intellectuals.

I think these missteps originate in the messages about intelligence some people get as they're growing up. For example, a kid may have been told from a young age that he's special for being smart, he should base his whole sense of self-worth around that, and that his intelligence makes him better than other people.

There's also a loose culture among people who think of themselves as smarter than average, and many of the behaviors below can be picked up through it. That means a lot of the points below may sometimes be appropriate to use around fellow self-identified intellectuals, but they can rub other types of people the wrong way. It's all about knowing the right context to use them in or not.

Unnecessarily telling people about random trivia

This one is usually pretty minor and harmless. Sometimes smart people have a lot of random information in their heads and they can want to share it with everyone. They may unconsciously assume sharing interesting knowledge can be their angle for adding value to a conversation. However, they bring up their trivia around people who don't care about learning fun new facts, or they go on about something just long enough that it starts to bore everyone. For example, someone could be talking about their new puppy, and the smart person will chime in to explain the unique mechanics of how dogs use their tongues to lap up water. No one is horribly offended or anything, but at the same time they're looking at them like, "Uh... Okay... Thanks?..."

Unexpectedly taking conversations in a really abstract, philosophical direction

This also isn't a grievous error, just something that can confuse people who don't see it coming. For example, two friends are at a cafe and one says, "I'm not sure if I want to get a coffee or a tea." Their friend replies with their thoughts on the economics and ethics of how cash crops like coffee beans are grown in the Global South. That's a valid conversation topic, but not what their friend was expecting. They just wanted some quick input like, "I hear they make good cappuccinos here." When you're intelligent and curious your mind can go to abstract or existential places, and there's nothing wrong with that. Bringing up your thoughts may not be the right match for what another person wants from the discussion right that second though.

Getting overly discouraged when others aren't enthusiastic about their interests

A brainy person may become interested in an esoteric and/or highly technical topic and feel discouraged when everyone seems to brush them off when they try to talk about it. They may start to feel alienated and question whether they have anything in common with their friends, and if they're too intelligent for most people, and are doomed to a life where they'll constantly have to dumb themselves down.

Overall, I think intellectual types should find like-minded friends, who they don't feel they have to hold back around. However, even fellow intellectuals aren't keen to discuss every topic. Many people have specialized interests that are boring and inaccessible to outsiders when talked about in any depth (e.g., playing an instrument, working on cars). They realize there's no point in bringing them up in day-to-day conversations, and save that for fellow enthusiasts. It doesn't mean they're outcasts or that anyone who doesn't share their interests can't be a good friend for them, just that they accept they can't talk about everything they want to with everyone.

Being intellectually showy and arrogant

There isn't much to say about this other than it's off-putting for its own sake. Who wants to be around some haughty or patronizing person who thinks they're better than everyone? Some other symptoms:

The thinking behind these behaviors reflects a lack of perspective because intelligent people aren't all that special or unique. Even if someone has a one-in-a-hundred level of intelligence, in a city of a few million there are going to be tens of thousands of other people who are just as smart. Also, you could say that being intelligent on paper, or in the sense of being able to solve abstract puzzles quickly, is kind of pointless if you don't use your mind to actually accomplish anything. Your IQ score just becomes a number to stroke your ego with.

Some people who act this way truly are conceited jerks. Though it often comes from a deeper sense of insecurity and a misguided attempt to be liked. A smart person may just want to be accepted, and mistakenly think if they show off their superior brainpower that everyone will be impressed. They may believe their intellect is all they have going for them, so they have to try to flex it. They might have raw intelligence, but also have difficulties, like ADHD, they're self-conscious about, and believe they have to show off to say, "See?? I'm not dumb like you might think!"

None of that excuses how they might hurt someone's feelings. I just want to emphasize that not every intellectual who comes off as abrasive is a heartless monster.

Believing they must always look smart

Some people make their intelligence their identity and aren't comfortable when they aren't knowledgeable about a subject. Rather than accept and admit they can't know everything, and even be open to learning from someone else, they think they have to look like an expert and start bullshitting. At times this might impress someone who doesn't know any better, but often people see through it, and they just seem like they're insecure and trying too hard.

Inappropriately correcting people

I.e., the guy who's always interrupting other people with, "No, actually..." Watch yourself if you have a tendency to act like this as it can really disrupt the happy flow of a conversation. This is especially true if you're correcting something minor and tangential to the point the speaker was trying to make. There are times when it's necessary to point out someone's error, but it's not when a friend is excitedly telling a story about their vacation and you bring things to a screeching halt to explain they couldn't have possibly flown on the type of plane they said they did. It's even worse if you correct people in a curt, condescending, blunt, rude, or exasperated manner.

There are a few reasons people may do this:

Pick your battles when you correct people. Weigh the benefits of speaking up against the possibility of annoying everyone. Realize you don't have to wage a one-person war to banish ignorance from the world in all its forms. If you decide to go for it, use a light, casual tone. You may even want to make a joke about how you know you're being pedantic, but can't help it. However, your first thought should still be, "Do I need to make this correction at all?" Just because you can make a joke to soften the impact doesn't mean you can now do it whenever you want.

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Being an overly argumentative debater

Someone says something you don't agree with. You begin arguing with them. Once the argument starts it gets really hard to back down. The other person says something even more ignorant, which really gets you going. You have to prove them wrong. You have to get the last word in. You have to make them see what a moron they are.

The same mentality that can lead people to correct others can also make them want to get into debates. In the intellectual subculture I mentioned earlier there's a view that arguing and debating is a fun, mentally stimulating activity, one that's often done in a spirit of friendly competition. A debate is nothing personal, just a chance to work out your critical thinking muscles and score some points by pointing out your opponent's use of logical fallacies.

Unless the other person has the same mindset, they're probably more annoyed and taken aback at suddenly being in an argument than anything. They just stated an opinion and now you're jumping down their throat. It's another way to easily derail a social interaction. Like correcting people, wanting to jump into a debate can become a bad habit.

Being intellectually competitive in conversations

If you get a bunch of intellectual people together, sometimes, but not always, the discussion will turn into a big battle to prove who knows more than all the others. One person will make some statement. Someone else will have to jump in and trump it with a more impressive, obscure piece of knowledge. A third voice will insist they're mistaken and offer the "accurate" version of the facts. It will be pointed out that someone used a big word improperly. Even if they're just casually discussing a topic on the surface, underneath everyone's vying for the title of Smartest Person At The Table. All the ideas of correcting, debating, and one-upping I just mentioned come into play here. Like the other points, doing this can be tiresome and throw a conversation off its axis. People often want to connect and feel on the same page, not like they're always competing.

Being too blunt and abrasive

When you hang around people who like to argue and debate all the time, everyone can get into the bad habit of being too blunt and tactless with each other. This is fine around your intellectual friends, but not so great around people who have no tolerance to it. Arrogance can also lead someone to speak in a rude, overly straightforward way.

There's a pretty well known joking-but-not-really theory that says typical people apply tact to everything they say. Nerds, as the theory goes, are the opposite. They're naturally more abrasive around each other, but don't take any of it personally, because they apply tact to everything they hear. Two typical people or two nerds can communicate with each other just fine. But if you put a typical person and nerd together it breaks down. The nerd gets exasperated with the typical person for tiptoeing around what they want to say, and the regular person gets offended by the nerd's curt, direct manner of communicating.

Being overly skeptical and cynical

Skepticism, and even cynicism, are important parts of critical thinking skills. You should think for yourself and not accept what you're told at face value. Some people go too far with this though. Present them with anything and they'll immediately find some cynical angle to it. Fun new show on TV? Just a way for the media oligarchy to distract us from the real problems in society.

People can think they come across as an enlightened social commentator when they make observations like this. They can get a self-esteem boost out of it, because you feel like you're part of an elite who knows how things really are. However, many people see hyper-cynics as killjoy complainers more than anything. I think it's great to be skeptical in your mind, but when you verbalize it all the time, and around the wrong audience, you can come off badly for injecting too many negative vibes into the conversation.

Being too negative and critical

This is the same idea as the point above. Some intelligent people can think that by pointing out the flaws in everything they're impressing everyone with how perceptive and analytical and insightful they are. They see it as a sign of intelligence to be able to spot what's wrong with something when no one else has. They can believe that if they come across something new and can't find anything wrong with it then they've failed somehow.

It definitely takes brains to break things down and recognize their faults, but unless you're purposely having a conversation in order to critique something, mentioning your findings out loud just makes you seem pointlessly nitpicking and negative. One way this can be especially off-putting is when you feel compelled to dissect and comment on things where nothing is at stake, like a friend's light, slightly exaggerated story.

Being one-dimensional and only interacting with people in an intellectual way

When you're smart you can bring a lot to a conversation. You can make insightful observations. You can ask thought provoking questions. You can share interesting bits of information. But there are other fulfilling ways people can connect, that don't require the same kind of brain power. You can be a good listener. You can fill a friend in on the simple details of your day. You can make silly, low-effort jokes. You can cry about your stressful week and get a hug. You can take a stroll in silence.

Intellectual people are obviously capable of doing these things, but sometimes they don't want to. They might have a mentality where they want to have deep, cerebral, analytical conversations all the time. Again, nothing wrong with preferring to give your mind a workout, but most people don't want to be in that mode non-stop. It's good to be flexible enough to interact in other styles.

Some smart types are like this because they really just prefer to have dry, intellectual discussions, and don't have much patience for anything else. Others have those pesky insecurities, and believe they have nothing to offer aside from their intellect, and that they need to broadcast how clever they are 24/7.

Buying too much into the idea that intelligence and social skills are incompatible

There are millions and millions of smart people who have very good social skills. It's only a subset of intelligent people who fit into that stereotype of the person who's so brainy and on a different wavelength that it interferes with their ability to relate to others. I think some smart people can limit themselves by buying into the narrative that interpersonal skills and intelligence are an either-or thing, or that everyone who's gifted is doomed to forever lurk on the outskirts of society. A related idea is that social skills are a "lower" kind of concern and not worth a smart person's time to learn. I'm sure their unique way of seeing the world does give highly intelligent people some problems in social situations. However, I think the impact of this can be overstated. I also think anyone, even alienated geniuses, can improve their social skills if they're willing to work on them.

Over thinking things and coming to the wrong conclusions about socializing

This isn't an annoying behavior, just something I've noticed about some highly intelligent types. People who are very smart can have minds that work in unique ways. Sometimes their novel perspective (coupled with a lack of firsthand experience and a dash of over-analysis) can be a liability when it comes to figuring out how the world works. It can cause them to miss the obvious or simple answer and instead come up with a more complicated, eccentric theory. I've seen really smart guys use their powerful, but quirky, brains to analyze social situations, come to totally off-base conclusions, and subsequently sabotage their future encounters with people.