Random tidbits, factoids and conversation points pulled from the latest broadcast of NPR have always been my conversation fuel. But this stuff can turn you into an insufferable intellectual know-it-all if you’re not careful, and that makes people not want to talk you. Here’s how I’ve learned to rein that in.
Picture: JD Hancock
I enjoy learning, and because of that I tend to fancy myself a jack-of-all-trades (and, yes, a master of none). I’m full of useless facts, knowledge and tidbits that most people don’t care about or want to hear about. Even so, that’s never stopped me from talking. In the past, this has made me come across as a snarky know-it-all or just straight-up arrogant. It’s not intentional at all though: I love learning, I love arguing, I love thinking critically about random topics, and I love discussing nonsense with anyone who’ll talk with me.
But one day recently, a friend pointed at a book on my bookshelf, and I replied with that classic, condescending, High Fidelity-esque “you don’t know who this is?” response. I immediately wished I could take back. I felt like a complete jerk, but at least it made me take a closer look at how insufferable I was in conversation. After a few weeks of paying attention to how I was speaking, the problem was worse than I thought. So, I gave myself some rules. If any of this sounds familiar, you might want to follow along.
Beware Any Sentence that Starts with the Word “Actually”
We’ve talked before about removing the word “actually” from your writing, and it’s true for speaking as well. Every time I start a sentence with “actually”, I’m about to say something snarky or drop a backhanded compliment. Both are horrible, both are unintentional, and both seem to find their way into my dialogue without me noticing.
It’s not just “actually” of course. Other words trigger the same type of accidental snark. “Obviously”, “of course” and “honestly” are both crutch words that almost always precede some type of know-it-all statement. The same often goes for “is”, which, as we’ve pointed out before, has a nasty tendency to sound more definitive than you mean it to. Here are a few examples:
“He acted like an idiot in my eyes.”
“He seems to have no sense at-all.”
“She looks depressed.”
Which is not at-all the same as :
“He IS an idiot!” and “She is depressed.”
Unfortunately, speaking isn’t like writing. You can’t just CTRL+F your way through your daily dialogue to find your mistakes. Instead, I made a mental note of it and watched out for those mistakes. If I found myself about to say “actually”, I’d pause and restructure the sentence. It took some willpower and a lot of self-forgiveness when I slip up and make mistakes, but those crutch words eventually left my vocabulary. They’re still around in my head, but at least I typically catch them before they leave my stupid mouth.
Be Mindful of Your Audience
Some of my friends might appreciate the fact that Tron was not difficult to find on DVD when it first released, it was only difficult when Tron: Legacy was released with a two-pack. Most of my friends (and strangers) however, just don’t care. Perhaps it’s the years of working at home that made me forget a simple rule of communication: tailor your message to your audience.
My brain is so filled up with dumb shit that it’s hard not to share those facts when they come up in conversation. I’ll randomly add tidbits like, “Oh, actually, Wario’s name is a portmanteau of Mario and the Japanese word for ‘bad’, it’s not just an upside M”, or “I’m pretty sure the Endurance in Interstellar is named after Ernest Shackleton’s ship.” This is all good and fine, but I wasn’t paying attention to when those facts where appropriate to add and when they weren’t.
I’m sure you know how obnoxious people who make these types of non-sequitur comments can be. Sure, in some circles, it’s great. It’s a fun way to push a conversation along, spark up something new, or dig into a topic everyone’s excited about discussing. In other circles, they fall on deaf ears, or worse, alienate you from other people in the conversation. My brain, for whatever reason, had forgotten how to differentiate between the two groups.
I had to retrain my brain a little for this, but it was as simple as giving myself a couple of seconds to think, “Does anyone in this conversation care about what I’m about to say?” It sounds simple, like something we should all already think before we open our mouths, but most of us just don’t do it.
Don’t Correct People, Point them in the “Right” Direction
Sometimes, people are wrong. Sometimes, they say stupid things. But not every wrong thing someone says needs correcting, or at least not from you (or me, for that matter). However, when you do decide to butt in, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way. I always went straight for the throat with blunt comments like, “no, you’re wrong…” or whatever. That doesn’t always go over that well.
We’ve talked before about correcting someone who shares false information online, and some of those same rules apply here. Be polite, only correct people when it really matters, and try connecting with people as opposed to correcting them.
For me, the simplest way to do this is to ask questions instead of rushing to tell someone “actually…”, like I mentioned earlier. A good set of questions can steer someone to the right answer without you calling BS. Here’s an example from former diplomat Angela Dickey:
I think the best thing is to get the other person to try and think about whether or not they’re correct… You could say something like, “Where did you hear that? That’s really interesting.”
Asking questions is like a magic trick. You’re forcing a person to think about their sources and why they think the way they do without bluntly correcting them. They will usually feel smart for getting to the right answer on their own and you don’t come across as a know-it-all who can’t help but correct everyone on every dumb fact they spit out.
Admit When You’re Wrong
Speaking of correcting someone, chances are that if you’re the type to correct someone else, you’re also wrong a lot. Nobody likes to admit when they’re wrong, but the smarter you think you are the more often you’re wrong. It just comes with the territory, so get used to admitting it.
We’ve talked before about ways to admit that you’re wrong, but for me it’s about taking the time to consider other options before reacting to them. If someone says I’m wrong about something or challenges me, I take the advice of Signal v Noise writer Jason Fried and wait a few minutes to respond. During that time, I’ll think about an idea instead of immediately dismissing it. This way, I can come back with an admittance that I’m wrong or another challenge.
Of course, that’s great for big ideas and arguments. Sometimes I’m just flat out wrong about something, in which case I’ve learned the delicate art of saying, “whoops, you’re right, I’m an idiot.” The more you say that, the easier it gets. Better still, when you do, there’s a good chance your friends and colleagues will respect you more for it.
The fact is, I’m never as smart as I think I am. Approaching conversations with a little more humility helps tone down the accidental tone-deafness of a typical know-it-all. I’m sure I haven’t worked out all the kinks here, and I still come off as a know-it-all sometimes, but at least now I can keep an eye on it.