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you think you're so smart!
so maybe you should start acting the part
by alicia coleman

“Cleeaaaarrrly, his perspective – that of probing into, and looking down upon, the people – represents [insert artist’s name] disdain for, what I’m suuuure he would dub, the ‘lower classes.’ I mean, reeeaaaaly, who is he kidding with that choice of viewpoint? How that piece ever made it to the salon during [insert epoch, preceded by pretentious-sounding adjective] is absolutely preposterous, especially given the backlash expected from – again, what he would coin – the ‘masses.’”

Chortle. Chuckle. Sneer aside made under bated breath to equally pretentious, nasal-sounding co-snob.

Sheesh! You could cut through the pretension in the room with a thesaurus. Undergraduate philosophy seminars aside, I hadn’t heard that much jibber-jabber concentrated in one room at the same time in years. But, it came as no surprise. Toss a few academic wannabes – be they clad in either Versace and glittery gems or retro black frames and an everything-for-$3 garage sale t-shirt – into a room, suspend paintings (the more abstract, the better) on the wall, and serve just enough of a light white wine to encourage banter but not enough to solicit candor, and what do you get? The perfect recipe for unbridled arrogance. Makes you wish for a re-enactment of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, in which the ingenious intellectual-ist (by that I mean anti-intellectual) himself pulls aside a conveniently placed writer to debunk the elitist, not to mention jejune, blabberings of a loudmouth academic. We should all be so lucky to find the subject himself when overhearing another’s drivel about his work. It sure would have come in handy at that last gallery, anyway:

Obnoxious onlooker: “Blah, blah, blah … perspective and viewpoint … blah, blah, blah … is suggestive of class division … blah, blah, blah … and further fosters gentrification … blah, blah, blah … and anything else I can say to make me appear infinitely smarter than you despite the fact that it amounts to little more than hogwash.”

Artist, conveniently pulled out of the woodworks by me (alas, Mr. Allen was unable to attend this event): “Actually, it’s just a view from a balcony. It overlooks the people below, because it was painted from above. I just wanted to paint a pretty picture, not start an elitist revolution. Sorry to disappoint you.

(Obnoxious onlooker’s obnoxious friend looks chagrined.)

Me: “Another glass of that light white wine, please!”

To be sure, most of us, myself included at the forefront, play the part of know-it-all, especially when meeting new people and when trying to put our best feet forward. At the risk of appearing snooty or aloof, we dip into our little bags of knowledge to razzle and dazzle the pants off someone – unfortunately, sometimes literally – with our fun factoids and punchy prose. And, more often that not, it’s just plain fun. As long as, of course, it doesn’t border on the pretentious, on the arrogant, and on the “I’m just too damned smart for my own good” sort of behavior. Putting on your best face is essential when introducing yourself to strangers. Playing the part of instructor rather than peer, however, is not. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions – most of which the writer herself needs to take to heart – for carrying on cordial conversations, sans the conceit:

1. Choose your words carefully. Here’s the part where you, the reader, shouts out, “but didn’t you just use ‘sans’ a second ago? You couldn’t have forgotten already! You wrote it only a few sentences ago!” I, hearing you loud and clear, blush and agree that, yes, I shouldn’t have used ‘sans.’ It is, after all, pretentious to pepper your phrases with French and Latin when readily available, and just as good, American equivalents exist. It may not be the most beautiful of languages, but English is still damn expressive. And as it is the native tongue of most of us, we should by all means use it. So forgive me, critical reader, for being as snobby as that obnoxious onlooker from above. I should not have used “sans.” There. But, I’ll make no apologies for writing ‘jejune.’ Sure, simpler synonyms abound, but that doesn’t mean I’m not free to use what I think are the prettier words out there. If I want to trade in ‘jejune’ for ‘childish’ or ‘flat,’ I will. (Remember, it’s my article.) Besides, it would be just as rude to neglect all of those fantastically descriptive words in our language as it would be to leave your plate half full when invited over for dinner. You take what you’re offered, and you do so appreciatively. As such, I’m not suggesting you be neglectful of your vocabulary. All I’m arguing against is wordy, pretentious-sounding stuff. So, by all means, sound pretty and nice – just steer clear of verbosity. Thanks.

2. Don’t pretend to know more than you do. Following this rule of thumb doesn’t require
you to switch careers. Hell, if we couldn’t pretend to be brighter than we really are in the office then a good one-third of us would be out of business. And since we lawyers have to eat too, boasting our feathers and strutting our (sometimes nonexistent) stuff is at times necessary. But in every-day conversation, it’s nicer and humbler to chalk it up and admit that you “just don’t know” on the rare occasion that you, in fact, don’t. You don’t know how many times I’ve made an argument, following up a point with, “well, studies have shown that x, y, and z.” Really? What studies? Show me. More often than not, I will have heard or read something somewhere about what I’m trying to say, but god help me if I truly knew with dead-on accuracy what I was talking about. So follow what I preach and not what I practice. Concede a point. Admit your ignorance. It’ll make for a smooth, not to mention more honest, conversation. And at the end of the day, isn’t an honest one-on-one the stuff we all crave. (But, if you’re debating me, please don’t call me on any of these “studies have shown” crack-pot arguments. It would really make me look bad. Thanks again.)

3. Get off your high horse and talk about something other than books and art and pregnant chads. By all means, flex your mental muscle. It’s good for you, and it’s what we, as people, are made to do. Just give it a rest every now and then. Trade in the talk on “who’s your favorite post-modernist feminist?” for a question such as “do you like sprinkled or plain donuts better?” It’s more fun, more easy-going, and a lot less pretentious. And even though it’ll prevent you from using some killer tri-syllabic words, rest assured that your smarts, regardless of choice of topic, will shine through. Remember, everyone knows that sprinkled donuts are better.

4. Act like a kid again. No, don’t throw a temper tantrum when things aren’t going your way, or bow out of an argument early due to your nap-deprived grouchiness. Instead, approach people and ideas with that “fresh from the stork” attitude. A lot of people may consider the Chuck E. Cheese regulars as cute and cuddly but mindless nonetheless. Yet Plato was, I think, dead on when he said that young children, having recently been born and thus just removed from the spiritual world of knowledge, hold the key to life’s questions. But you don’t have to be a philosopher to both appreciate them and glean some good “talkin’ tips” from them. With few exceptions, I’ve gotten the right answer from a child when everyone else seemed totally ignorant on the point. In fact, just a few days ago I received some wise advice while sharing tacos with an eight year old. When asked how she persuaded her Dad to cross party lines and vote for the Democrats in the last election (needless to say, it was a politically charged conversation), she sweetly but devilishly replied, “I just cried. I cried and cried about oil drilling and abortion rights – [that’s right, oil drilling and abortion rights are on an eight year old’s agenda these days] – until he finally gave in.” So, there you have it. If all else fails during a debate, toss your hands up in the air and shed a tear. You may look like an idiot, given that you’re no longer eight, but you just might sway some folks anyway. And I’ll take that over looking like a pretentious snob any day.


more about alicia coleman


another plane story
cracking the code to a fun life from within the mile-high club
by alicia coleman
topic: general
published: 12.30.99

sticking to your political guns?
sometimes it's best to leave the political mumbo jumbo in the voting booth
by alicia coleman
topic: general
published: 12.30.99


adam kraemer
8.24.01 @ 11:46a

I have a friend who holds that you get more weight behind anything you say if you start a sentence with "As the philosopher said." He often does that when he makes toasts.

tracey kelley
8.24.01 @ 12:53p

I've had to ground myself for saying "They say..." Who are 'they' and what are 'they' doing in my soup? So now, I willingly admit to my lack of memory by saying "I read somewhere...The New Yorker? Unte Reader?...Cosmo?... oh, I don't remember...that..." It seems to go over a little better. I appear flighty, but well-read.

mike julianelle
8.24.01 @ 1:22p

I can't stand it when someone says, "if you will." And I love it when a pseudo-intellectual type is trying to be smart and says something like, "For all intensive purposes." Love it!

alicia coleman
8.24.01 @ 2:00p

Right there with you, Michael! I'll see your "if you will" and "for all intensive purposes" and raise you by a "what have you." Absolutely hate that.

I also hate it when people begin statements with "frankly." Frankness, I should hope, would just be a given.

matt morin
8.24.01 @ 2:15p

Working in advertising I hear ridiculous buzzwords all day. If I have to hear another company that's in the "solutions" business, I'm gonna hurl. And if another ad agency calls itself an "integrated marketing communications firm" I'm loading up the Uzi.

The other one is "conceptual framework" when they could just say "idea."

adam kraemer
9.21.01 @ 11:39a

Hey, we're all aware that the saying is "for all intents and puposes," right?

mike julianelle
9.21.01 @ 11:42a

Yes, that's what I meant in my post. Those idiots that say "intensive" instead.

jael mchenry
9.21.01 @ 1:47p

Had trouble keeping a straight face in a recent meeting when one exec kept emphasizing that the topic at hand was "a mute point."

adam kraemer
9.21.01 @ 2:16p

Mike, I know you were pointing that out. As a copy editor, I feel it's my duty to let everyone else know the correct saying. Also, it's "nip it in the bud" and "buck naked."

travis broughton
9.21.01 @ 2:28p

Yes, but lots of us use words fairly frequently that don't mean what they should, usually because people heard them the wrong way a long time ago. Look up the etymology of curry (as in the plant), Key West, or the Yucatan Peninsula for a few examples. Granted these are due to mishearing something in another language, but for someone who has never seen "moot point" or "intents and purposes" in print a homonym is a homonym.

PS. "Free reign", "free rein" or "free rain"?

joe procopio
9.21.01 @ 2:43p

You know what I hate? Boocoo instead of beaucoup. Trying to sound snotty and french and goofing that up is two strikes in one sentence.

I tend to start sentences off with "Not for nothing, but"... That can mean anything. It doesn't make me sound smart, but it definitely prefaces a strong point.

mike julianelle
9.21.01 @ 3:16p


jael mchenry
9.21.01 @ 3:16p

Free rein.

But Travis, they're not true homonyms. Moot and mute don't sound exactly alike.

My poetry teacher used to tell a great story about a student who went to see a Broadway production of "Lame Is Rob." That's a fun one.

tracey kelley
9.21.01 @ 6:04p

"Lame is Rob" - hee hee. Is that like (and I'm not making this up - d.b.) the Pirates of Pizzazz?

joe procopio
9.22.01 @ 1:19p

Rob is lame, by the way.

adam kraemer
9.24.01 @ 1:59p

I often wonder if people misspeak because they don't know any better or if they're just too lazy or apathetic to try to be correct. The next time I hear someone say, "You've got another thing coming," I may have to stick a Q-tip into my brain.

jael mchenry
9.24.01 @ 2:09p

Dammit, what's that a quote from? "Stop the Q-tip when there's resistance!"?

adam kraemer
9.24.01 @ 2:28p

Actually, it's from "Friends" (Chandler to Joey), but I wasn't consciously referencing it at the time.

lee anne ramsey
9.24.01 @ 7:00p

Quite frankly, I think that one person's trash is another person's treasure.

adam kraemer
9.25.01 @ 11:08a

That's what the guy living in the box next to my office always says.

jennifer grant
10.2.01 @ 2:52p

Let me just say, if you ever use imaginary air quotes around a phrase in a pseudo-laid back acknowledgement of your pretentious lingo, Allegra will hurt you.

adam kraemer
10.2.01 @ 3:06p

Emotionally or physically?

mike julianelle
10.2.01 @ 3:47p

Oh, and how about when someone says, or WRITES, "I could care less."

It's "COULDN'T CARE LESS," or it makes no sense, MORON!

I think that is one of the most frequently misused phrases, but it's hard to fault people because it's so rampant, one mis-usage begets another.

adam kraemer
10.2.01 @ 4:52p

You mean like hyphenating a word for no reason?

mike julianelle
10.2.01 @ 5:14p

You are such a smart-ass, A-dam.

matt morin
10.2.01 @ 10:54p

Hey, that's better than being a dumb-ass.

(That was not directed at you Mike. Just a general comment.)

mike julianelle
10.3.01 @ 2:06p

Thanks for the disclaimer. Cuz without it I would've gone ballistic! ;)

adam kraemer
10.3.01 @ 3:03p

I seem to recall being told once that it's always better to be pissed off than pissed on.

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