How To Be Smarter, Not Just Sound Smarter

I’ve always been a smarty pants, especially when it comes to vocabulary. My parents had me reading at an early age and I absorbed words from well-written books like a sponge. I’ve often been accused of affecting airs because I use a lot of “big words” in my day-to-day communication. One time, a supervisor added that to a performance review because he thought I needed to tone it down.

I never bought into that claim. There’s a clear difference between someone who uses words appropriately and someone who is intentionally (or ignorantly) dropping big words into their sentences. The issues are most about self-esteem and good manners than actual language. Snobbery and pretense stem from low self-esteem and bad manners, not education levels.

A post on Mashable caught my eye this morning: 15 words you should eliminate from your vocabulary to sound smarter. Spoiler alert: this is crap.

First of all, if your goal is to “sound smarter” rather than to be smarter, you are doomed to always be that person who seems pretentious. You can use as many listicles as you want, but the end result will not be any different.

If you want to sound/be smarter, read. Read the newspaper, read well-written books and magazines. Read them on your phone or tablet, sure. It really doesn’t matter what genre you select as long as the books are well-written. Youth dystopia novels are often terrific and you’ll learn how to talk about a dystopian future versus “the Hunger Games future.”  Read, read, read and read some more. Listen to well-written books on tape.

The other key to sound/be smarter is to brush up on your grammar and spelling skills. There are thousands of websites that you can consult to review the basics. Don’t pay attention to grammar nazi nerds on social media who mock people for “there” instead of “their” – they are jagoffs being as pretentious as the woman who thinks irregardless is a word. Good grammarians don’t make you feel bad for making a mistake; they help you understand the mistake.

In other words, it requires work and time on your part to be smarter, but everyone can do it. Caveat – you don’t HAVE to do anything. If you believe your communication skills are fine, great. I agree, because it is your call. Don’t be bullied into figuring out how to use “erudite” or “aplomb” if you have no use for those words and when there are plenty of equally lush words you can use.

Second of all, eliminating words is about as obvious as inserting “big” words. It is one thing to try to change your vocabulary to be a more effective and sincere communicator (such as eliminating offensive words from your day-to-day conversation), but quite another to remove the words that reflect your unique identity and culture. If Grandma said “honestly” all of the time, why shouldn’t you? Because a listicle claims that it conveys dishonesty? That’s absurd.

Yes, it is true that people will make snap judgments based on your conversation and writing style. Taking a Cosmo-type quiz on your vocabulary isn’t going to change their judgment or your actual communication skills.

Final tip – I’m a lazy writer, so don’t use my blog as part of your reading plan. Honestly.


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