I want to write a few posts about a topic that is personal and hard for me to talk about. It is an area that I often feel misunderstood. As such, I have little confidence that I am even going to make sense with what I write. I don’t even know where I’m going to go with it, or how I’m going to end up. I’m not sure if the post itself will connect to the title. The title is what is on my heart. Getting there may be long and confusing. I need to talk about this. I need to try to communicate it. Please bear with me if I don’t make sense. Or to put it in the words of an alternate post title I thought of, “I’m Smart, Please Like Me Anyway.”
Let me start off this post with a disclaimer and some background presuppositions. I’m going to be talking about a word I don’t really care for: Smart. I dislike this term, because: [update: It’s still me talking in the list–I can’t figure out how to indent in this template without WordPress automatically inserting the big quote mark]
1.It can mean way too many things. If you call me smart, what do you really mean? With this particular label, I find that what one person means when they use the word can be very different from what another person thinks when they hear it.
2.It can mean too few things. I operate mostly out of a paradigm of “multiple intelligences”. When people call me smart, it frustrates me, in part, because I feel like they’ve artificially elevated one type of intelligence. Usually, I think people are talking about something to do with academics. They seem to be saying, You know things I don’t know. You remember things way better than I do. You think about things in ways I can’t even think to think about. You use big words. Those things relate to only one type of smart. But, when you call me smart, sometimes it feels like by your acknowledging whatever it is that you see as smart in that moment, you are from that point on, expecting me to be forever smart in every way. Which leads to my next point:
3.It is loaded with assumptions. I hate being called smart, not because I can’t receive a compliment (which is what many people assume when I don’t know how to respond to being told I’m smart), but because I’ve been burned too many times by the paradox of people who go on and on about how smart I am, until I do something that seems stupid to them, and then they ask, “What WERE you thinking?” Or, worse yet statements like, “Just Think about it.” If you call me smart, it feels like there are assumptions and expectations about how I should always behave and think, and a lot less tolerance for me to do or be “not smart” (whatever that is) at times. Some of the time, “not smart” really IS that I’m not too smart in a certain area. Some of the time, when you look at me or respond to me like I’m stupid, it seems like it is precisely because I don’t think exactly like you do that I now appear to be stupid or “not thinking”. Other times, it is hard because I’m not believed when I truly don’t understand something or can’t do something or can’t figure something out… “But you’re so smart.”
4.It is an isolating term. Often when I hear someone call me smart, I feel like a wide gulf has just been artificially laid down between me and them. You’re smart. You’re different. I admire how smart you are, but it’s obvious we can’t really relate, because you are so far “up there” with your thoughts and ideas.
5.It is a “big” adjective. When people see smart, sometimes it seems like they can’t see beneath, behind or below that. I don’t want you to see me as smart, if, in doing so, you can’t see the whole picture of me, of which my academic brain capabilities are only a part.
6.It is an adjective that carries a lot of weight. It seems to trump other adjectives. It is often used in a ranking way. For example, when someone is telling me I am smart, it often feels like they are putting me on a pedestal, and themselves lower, in comparison. (which ties into #4)
At the same time, I can’t seem to cut the word out of my life. As an adjective, it is helpful. I have friends who I like for a variety of reasons. Or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say, I have many friends who I like. Each of them has many fascinating, interesting and likable traits. Some of those friends have as one of their characteristic what I would describe as “smart”. I don’t want to have to deny or ignore that their being smart is part of the them that I like.It’s not so much that I like them because they are smart, but that I like them, and when I think of them, “smart” is one of the adjectives I would use to describe them.
This friend wears glasses. That friend is tall. One friend is an incredible seamstress. Another is extremely shy. And still another is, yes, smart. I’m not exactly complimenting my tall friend, nor am I putting down my shy friend when I use those adjectives. They just are those things. They aren’t only those things (And that is a very key point to my thinking). Each adjective paints just a tiny part of a description that is never adequate to describe a particular friend.
Such adjectives are descriptive and not prescriptive. If you are my friend, you could, in talking about me to another person, honestly say, “She is tall.” You could not accurately say, “She is tall and so she plays basketball very well.” If I played basketball (I don’t–I am tall and very clumsy), and was good at it, it would be true. But as soon as the adjective “tall” becomes categorically loaded with assumptions and expectations which may or may not be true about me, it is no longer a helpful description, but becomes most unhelpful.
I suppose part of what I’m trying to work my way through to is that, although adjectives carry meaning that are loaded with implication, adjectives which describe people aren’t really rankable. Meaning I don’t like one friend better because they are smarter than the rest. And I don’t like another friend better than the rest of my friends because she is stunningly beautiful and draws attention wherever we go (I don’t have any stunningly beautiful friends, according to the world’s description of “stunning beauty,” but I imagine if I did that that friend could find the adjective “beautiful” as frustrating as I find “smart”.) By describing a friend with a specific adjective, I am saying nothing about their likability. I’m only describing the person who I happen to like very much.
Still, I want to be able to admire a trait in a friend, without it seeming like I’m ranking them. I want to be able to admire smart when I see it in a friend, and not have them feel awkward or elevated up. I have a daughter who paints beautiful pictures. When I admire her paintings, I am not saying, “I’m a terrible painter.” I really AM a terrible painter. I’m even a terrible drawer. Shoot, I can’t even color very well. But, I’m not thinking of those things, when I admire her paintings and say, “You are an amazing painter.” All I’m doing is admiring a trait and gift that SHE has. My admiration and description of what I see in her says nothing about me.
In the same way, I want to be able to admire a friend who has just said something amazing or thought about things from an incredibly profound perspective and say, “Wow, you are so smart” and have them hear the admiration and be glad because of it, but (1) know that their being smart isn’t a demand or constant expectation on which our friendship hinges and (2)it’s not the only thing I like about them, and if they got a disease that diminished their brain capacities tomorrow, I’d still like them. They are smart, but they are not only smart.
So, you can see the bind I’m in. I don’t like people using the word “smart” to describe me for the reasons above, but I find it, at times, a useful word, much like words such as artistic, creative, intense, laid back or funny. I suppose in the previous two paragraphs, I’m trying to put into words assumptions I long for you to have, if you are going to call me “smart”.