Look Smart! Ten Ways to Appear Intelligent (When you’re not). A Primer (Excerpt)

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1. Keep Mum (Throw out Dad)

Nothing is so good for an ignorant man as silence; and if he was sensible of this he would not be ignorant. (Saadi)

This might just be my impression, but mothers tend to hold their tongues better than fathers. Of course, there are some fathers out there who are quiet, non-verbal types, but I’ve always felt that in general our fathers’ tendency to ya`kety-yak can sometimes get them into trouble. I have many memories of my own dad getting lost in conversations, often with strangers, while the rest of his family drummed their fingers impatiently, waiting in cars, or on sidewalks outside shops or restaurants. Too often he would get to chatting with a waiter, or shopkeeper, who doubtless had better things to do, but who was reluctant to shut him down and move on. And many of these conversations would embarrass us, for some reason; he probably wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, but we always felt that the particular stranger to whom he was opening himself up thought he was weird for doing so.

His father was the same, according to him. My grandfather used to constantly get into conversations with strangers, often making long-term friendships this way. Once he invited the entire staff of an Indian restaurant in London to his home in the south of England. They all showed up and stayed for days. This was in the nineteen-forties, when there were few Indians in the UK, and the trek from London to Devon took an entire day. My dad has never really told me whether the Indians thought their host was a garrulous fool for inviting them, and cynically took advantage of his hospitality, or whether they genuinely liked him and wanted an opportunity to hang out. But the whole episode is a little suspect.

These memories, and much more, led me to the first principle in this book, and it is first mainly because it is the most important, and if you follow it many of the others will naturally fall into place: Don’t Talk Too Much. This is also the simplest principle, in fact it is beautiful in its simplicity, because if you don’t speak you can’t say anything dumb. It is the utterance of stupid things that gives you the appearance of stupidity. When you do stupid things, on the other hand, well, I can’t really help you with that, because as some wise old coot once said, actions speak louder than words. They just confirm stupidity as opposed to merely suggesting it.

“Ah,” I hear you saying, predictably (remember — don’t speak!), “But if I don’t say anything how can I appear intelligent? Huh? The answer is: Easily. If you don’t speak you cannot appear unintelligent, either. But more importantly, people will take your reticence for good-judgement, restraint and deep, inner confidence, all things of which intelligence is ultimately constructed. People therefore will have to judge you only by your actions and your looks. This is not unlike the legal principle of being innocent until proven guilty. But since I am dealing here with those of us who are aware that they are not geniuses, it is incumbent upon me to suggest silence, therefore allowing you to prevent any possibly idiocy from coming to light.

The less you say (if you are, in fact, not highly intelligent) the better. In suggesting that a person who talks a lot is likely to run the risk sooner or later, of saying something dumb I am simply invoking the law of averages: the more you utter, the greater the likelihood of making a gaff. Who ever heard of someone referred to as stupid simply for being taciturn? ( I suspect some people use epithets such as “slow waters run deep” to cover up the suspicion that the person in question is less than a genius). Perhaps Mark Twain (again) put it most elegantly when he said: “Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.” Knowing when to be quiet, then, is a key — and intelligent — skill.

Let me give you an analogy, backing up the law of averages, to make it clearer: If you eat oysters, you run a distinct risk of coming across a bad one. And a bad oyster is an experience you do not want to have. So, in order to reduce your risk of experiencing a bad oyster, don’t eat them! This does not mean that all oysters are bad. Its just that some are, and so to absolutely avoid finding those bad ones, avoid them altogether. This is known as simple logic, and its quite an effective weapon in one’s armory of smart bombs. In fact this kind of logic can traditionally be found among the older generations, especially women. Of the older generations, women tended to have their minds less cluttered with the paraphernalia of intelligence — education and professionalism. (Of course, now that women are increasingly the major players in education there is a distinct risk that they will become less savvy, but that’s equality for you). They were free, therefore, to rely on good, sound, native intelligence, instead of book learning and posturing. Your grandmother, I bet, would feel quite at home with the oyster analogy (although she probably wouldn’t need it because she would get the point about silence right away). My own grandmother was relatively taciturn, until she developed Alzheimers in her eighties, then began the garrulous period, but by then, well, who’s counting?

And old people are more likely to watch you knowingly out of the corners of their eyes as you, frantically thinking of things to say to them, prattle on about this and that, while they sit and enjoy your discomfort. Because silence is uncomfortable, there is no doubt. We ache to fill voids in the noise-space around us, so much so that we would prefer to offer up endless inane observations rather than face the void.

But apart from the logical likelihood of uttering an idiocy, then, it is also apparent to me, (and I daresay, a few others, those old-folks included) that the problem of garrulousness is usually perceived as being caused by a deficit of brain power. How is this so? People who talk a lot, (or too much) often do so because they do not know what to say in certain situations. They may even have so little confidence that they think their silence, even for a nanosecond, will be perceived as a permanent state of Catatonia (not to be confused with the state of California — that’s further west). Therefore their fear of silence prods them to the utterance of absolute gibberish, which it does not take a genius to notice.

Beyond the need to hide any latent idiocy, however, silence has been promoted for centuries as both a life preserver and in some instance a hair tonic (too much talking apparently can lead to premature aging and hair loss). But it also has a deep spiritual power, that is readily apparent, especially to the Eastern religions which generally venerate the concept of meditation. The whole point of meditation is to calm the “monkey mind,” prevent it from wreaking havoc on the whole human organism, as thoughts and speech rush around uncontrollably leading to a heightened state of alarm, creating anxiety and depression. And once calm, once the monkey is sedated and prevented therefore from wrecking your consciousness, you can perceive reality through a clear lens.

If the Easterners with their meditation and mystical holy men and women were down with silence, there are echoes of this in Western traditions as well, even if you’d think that the westerners are the worst offenders when it comes to cluttering the mind with unnecessary noise, distraction and monkiness. The Quakers are also aware of this, and that is why in Quaker meetings you are apt to sit in absolute silence for an uncomfortable period of time. T.S. Eliot was also a (Catholic) believer in the spiritual power of silence, in the idea that it is in silence that one can hear the voice of God, and ultimately, one can be transfigured. The Trappist monks are known for following a vow of silence, in addition to making excellent beer. Actually as it turns out, its more of a guideline. But whatever it’s force, it seems that they strive to avoid the clutter created by speech, seeing it as ultimately distracting from the contemplation of God. Now if god is not your cup of tea, you can probably rename him as “the Self” or “Consciousness,” in a way that would no doubt raise the hackles of a few Trappists, and perhaps get them to say something about it. Either way, speech is a confuser of thought all too often, and in spiritual and in intellectual terms letting go of it a little allows more room for listening — arguably a more useful past time.

I am moved to think of one of the western world’s great philosophers and adventurers,Winnie the Pooh. At one point in the A.A. Milne story, Pooh attempts to navigate his way out of the woods by letting his stomach hear the call of the honey pots in his pantry at home. His stomach had not been able to hear their signal while Rabbit was around, because “he would talk so.” Clearly, as has been pointed out before, Pooh has something of a Zen quality, which is not deaf to the virtues of silence. Indeed, the Buddhist tradition, like the Trappist, tends to see conversation as just another earthly distraction from the ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment. And Rabbit, for those familiar with the Pooh stories, is a frenetic, blabbering fool, bringing to mind (not) the biblical sentiments of Proverbs 17:28: Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues. This idea has some serious backers!

But outside the realm of the spiritual, is there any evidence for the idea that silence is smart? If you pursue this line of questioning you will find that there is a deeper context to this than the more obvious idea of not seeming stupid. Go and hang out in rural Spain. Or France, or Greece, or pretty much any old-world rural place. You will notice the same thing. You don’t get much out of the old folks, at least not on casual acquaintance. You might smile and offer up lavish “good mornings, or “good afternoons,” that being the extent of your local language ability. But you’ll probably get nary a smile in return, as you wander through the village, head-in-air, oggling the buildings and the scenery (so much history here!) My brother pointed this out to me once in Sicily. This is a particularly silent place, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment. One time, ordering our morning cappuccino in a working-man’s bar in Palermo, he hissed at me, don’t say please or thank you, and for God’s sake stop smiling like an idiot! This went against all my natural instincts. It also contradicted my feeling that as a foreigner here I needed to appear humble, polite. But the point, he said, was that this was a particularly macho traditional society which saw such politesse as a sign of weakness and effeminacy. In Sicily, even more, perhaps, than other rural places because of its Mafia culture, knowledge is power. Being friendly, and God-forbid, talkative, therefore, is distinctly dangerous. I reformed my face, won the attention of the barista, and said in a deep voice, caffe! as if I was just another working-class Sicilian.

In Sicily, as in many rural places, you don’t appear friendly to strangers because there is no reason to; friendliness is something to be earned in a place where you cannot rely on the benign feelings of strangers. The historian Theodore Zeldin has made the point that in the ancient and medieval worlds, conversation was dangerous. Why would you flap your lips too much, or at all, especially to a stranger? The currency of conversation — information — was powerful and therefore dangerous. When people lived overwhelmingly in small communities separated by wilderness (think of the omniscient woods of European fairytales), a stranger was a threat. So how do you treat him? Don’t blabber the state secrets to him, he’ll just come back in the night and cut your throat and take your goats and that bag of silver under your mattress.

Now obviously, we’re nicer than that now. Most of the time we give strangers the benefit of the doubt. But at the same time, it is likely that more than 10,000 years of agrarian civilization has left us wary of conversation. This has only fairly recently begun to change. Since the eighteenth-century when salons started appearing in Paris, conversation has been growing as a cultured, elite past-time and skill, but this was only among the tiniest groups of upper-class people who had nothing else to do, and were so secure in their financial positions and the growing legal infrastructure that protected them that they could happily sit and discuss ethics, religion, politics, sex, without worrying about the goats or the money under the bed.

But deep in our primordial past is another understanding, the understanding that speech is a currency of its own, with a decidedly mixed heritage. That perhaps is why silence has developed such a following among the spiritually advanced, the cautious and the smart. “Under all speech that is good for anything,” Thomas Carlyle, the influential eighteenth-century, Scottish philosopher wrote, “there is a silence that is better. Silence is deep as eternity; speech is shallow as time.”

I think that is enough said on this subject; whether you are a Quaker in search of God, a Yogi awaiting enlightenment, or simply a logical individual who wants to avoid appearing idiotic, one should pay homage to the God of Silence, and as often as possible break bread on her alter, offer a libation, or practice the art. Trust me, we’ll all be the better for it.