TED Conversations

Gisela McKay

President and Co-Founder, pixcode

TEDCRED 30+

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How do smart people "find their level" in conversation?

I am interested in identifying how smart people (gifted/exceptional or whatever word we’re using this week) people recognize each other.

I have observed that they can identify each other relatively quickly, and even broadly determine where they sit relative to each other while average or “less smart” people can usually identify that they are dealing with “smart” people but not necessarily the extent to which they are smart.

Some things I have observed that are “tells” of being “quicker”:

1. A willingness to leave the conversational basics behind and explore deeper into the subject (and if the person they are conversing with does not follow, drop back to the level the other can cope with).
2. Anchoring - taking the current topic of conversation and looking for a frame of reference they are already familiar with to understand it better.
3. Quips and parallel commentary - fleeting comments that are not meant to derail the main thrust of the conversation.

Any other keys you have observed in your experience?

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  • Aug 8 2011: It may sound funny but I have always managed to figure out other smart folks by looking into their eyes...A twinkle with a smile..kind of a hidden tagging that says 'from the same group, mate':) Has anyone else experienced this?
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      Aug 8 2011: Yes, the eyes have it! Good insight!
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      Aug 9 2011: Yes, mostly that's a good sign... but remember that they can lie as well...
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      Aug 9 2011: I like this as a concept. I, too, have definitely experienced that "Oh HO!" moment during discussions.

      I still suspect it is more than that, though, because I have been able to pick up on it on IRC, which is a purely text-based chat medium, and even during seemingly ordinary conversations.

      Edit: Actually now that I think about this some more, that twinkle is usually at the moment of realization - meaning something has given it away before that point, no?
      • Aug 9 2011: I would agree with you Gisela. I use Reuters Office Communicator (OC) & in my chats the 'twinkle' comes at a time when the other person understands (and responds) on points that one is still typing:)
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      Aug 9 2011: A number of years (decades..) ago I picked up some extra income doing intelligence testing to screen children who were being considered for a "gifted" program. After testing dozens of children over a few years and scoring the results, I noticed a pattern and could predict with some accuracy what their score might be by looking in their eyes. There was a curiosity and sense of adventure in whatever might be interesting that fits your description of "twinkle." When we were looking for a dog for my son, we looked into the eyes of the dogs at the shelter for that "twinkle" and found one who was exceptionally intelligent.
      • Aug 9 2011: Totally Bob, you said it! As a famous bollywood (India) song goes, "In your eyes there is a strange beauty"...song and the english translation of lyrics can be found here if you're curious:) http://www.lyricsmasti.com/song/4949/get_lyrics_of_Ajab-Si-Ajab-Si.html
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          Aug 10 2011: Thanks Ratul. I could not access your link. Do you have another option?
      • Aug 15 2011: I was one of those gifted kids. From long ago. Maybe not in your screening. But I believe I was the first generation of autistic kids. I believe my autism differs from the ones of today. It makes me very empathetic to anyone. Most ppl say you can't be empathetic if you yourself know it but I deny that claim. When you notice as a kid you react to things as a kid and your emotions are different than most kids. Anyway, not trying to throw the topic off. But maybe because of my particular autism as I would call it. I analyze and see things really really differently. My mom took me to get screen because of my gifts and because I was very empathetic>>>>> which I didn't notice until I was like 13. When ppl are sad or angry I'm unable to show real sad emotion of any kind. I will in fact laugh for no apparent reason. Anyway....I've derailed this topic.
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          Aug 16 2011: Conrad, It is not clear to me that you derailed the topic - this conversation potentially involves many layers and branches and I think you have raised an important point.

          Your description of autism doesn't match my understanding of that diagnosis. It sounds like you are a highly sensitive person, which in my opinion is a gift that sadly tends to work against people in this culture at this time. Many people learn to cope with these experiences by trying to inhibit the experience of emotion which we do by tensing various muscle groups and diminishing our breathing. (A build up of tension commonly leads to inappropriate laughter in highly emotional situation.)

          The concept of "emotional intelligence" doesn't make sense to me because the emotions are so different from cognition. "Sensitivity" and "Openness" are much clearer terms in my opinion. There is a parallel to this discussion in that people who are more sensitive emotionally often have a hard time being understood by those with normal sensitivity.

          In this mass culture that puts pressure on pre-adolescents to "fit in," we desperately need who see things differently. I appreciate your input.
      • Aug 17 2011: I've noticed that ppl such as myself. Are very quiet. Not because we don't have a lot to say. But as you said ppl such as myself can't express our self in this era. I've tried very hard to converse with many ppl and most I can tell within in the first 10 secs have no idea what I'm talking about. Not to be stereotypical. But I live in Atlanta and because the population is heavily black the only thing I can relate myself to them is Obama. That is not every black person. But I can for the most part almost always tell by the look in their eye that I would either have an engaging conversation or a slow simple one. I don't think the average person....doesn't have to be american. The average person does not comprehend the technology that is coming right now. And when I try to engage in a conversation about bionanotechnology or robotics or quantum mechanics. I find myself wanting to talk to anyone about it. Even if they don't know about it. My mind is a 24/7 scrolling encyclopedia. My release is posting tech vids of world changing technology on youtube so that I can at least feel like I'm sharing. But for the most part is agonizing not being able to express my intelligence and dumbing it down so that ppl can pace with me. Ppl really don't get me. I can disect a person's joke and see it different way than they intended. For example : They could have made a statement which could be look from an intelligent person as a technical joke. It happen today in class. Everyone looked at me funny. I thought it was hilarious. I've tried in the past to break them down to show them how it's funny. And they'll either look at me like "how was that funny" or either " they just don't get it" or "it would take so long to explain it that its not even funny to me anymore. I hate not being able to express myself and my views and or to share views with others.
    • Aug 10 2011: To be blunt, it doesn't sound funny, it sounds elitist. We aren't a club, and I don't necessarily revel in other "intelligent" individuals. As often as not, I find them to be odious, self righteous and terribly insecure. I have had just as many compelling conversations with poeple of average intelligence as those who are gifted.

      Although I understand the desire of the highly intelligent to be able to explore complex issues, and I too am compelled this way, our strengths are varied enough, that just because two people both have exceptional skills, certainly does not mean they will mesh well, or welcome each others input or company.

      The concept of a "twinkle and a smile" to me seems more like an acknowledgment that both are exceedingly familiar with the interior of a high school locker than mutual membership in some special club.

      However, in response to Bob, I do see how in children this could be relevant, as they tend to be far more overt and their curiosity could be visually apparent.
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        Aug 10 2011: I like the heart expressed in this comment, Jason!
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        Aug 11 2011: "As often as not, I find them to be odious, self righteous and terribly insecure." I would say that's just like the general population - i.e. that's just part of the human condition, isn't it? We're all varied with different experiences.

        For instance, I was never stuck in a locker, I was actually the cheerleading captain, and no, I never had anyone stuck in a locker. I was mean to someone who didn't deserve it once, in grade 8, and I still feel badly about that - I fundamentally don't understand why people derive pleasure from random cruelty, it's just not in my wiring, apparently. (I do understand revenge, though. I can be 'smitey'.)

        That aside, I am sitting here experiencing a fair amount of pain helping someone with something that (as far as I am concerned) should have taken 2 minutes to do, but instead I am typing away on my computer while she attempts to figure out something painfully basic.

        So yes, I prefer the company of smart people, especially in the context of work.
        • Aug 11 2011: Gisela, in all fairness, there is a difference between a person of average intelligence, and a complete idiot who can't handle the most basic tasks. I was never stuck in a locker either, I was actually a Kickboxer. I generally tried to protect people from getting shoved in lockers. However, just because someone appears to be an idiot, does not necessarily make them so.

          The random cruelty you speak of the the partitioning of alpha's and beta's. First the groups divide in their separate cliques of relative social rank, and then subdivide within themselves. It's typical behaviour as we're not nearly as far above monkeys as we'd like to believe. (Just watch the mating habits of Baboons and then go to your local disco...staggering I tell you).

          I guess my point is, that idiot you are helping right now, might absolutely OWN you at something else, and then sit there thinking "gosh, why can't this moron figure this out". So she failed to pass your judgement for what should qualify as intelligent. I'd probably fail pretty badly at a lot of things too. However, there are areas where few people in this WORLD (statistically speaking) are anywhere near me.

          That said, some people are just all around slow, however, that does not make them valueless, and frequently, I find "intelligent" poeple, so terribly overcomplicate issues (like how to identify eachother) that they miss what is more obvious and important. That strong communication on any level can yield incredible wisdom and insight, because we all have lives full of experience.

          That's not to say you shouldn't prefer the company of "smart" people, however, I would question what you define as "smart". I think a better term might be "compatibly intelligent". I know many very smart people I competely loathe, and many average people whose company I delight in.
        • Aug 11 2011: Gisela, I think if an intelligent person cannot communicate an idea or task to someone of more limited intelligence, it is more the intelligent persons problem.

          Its just a puzzle. Like all puzzles. "How can I frame this to this persons thinking style and ability?" I dont get annoyed by it, I just get challenged by it. People who are less intelligent who sense frustration on the part of the more intelligent person, (or more skilled person if its not a matter of intelligence) shut down. Their anxiety level can rise and make them even more incapable of learning what you need them to know.

          Be of good cheer, take it as a challenge, a puzzle to be solved and enjoy it. It will make it easier for you, and the person in question.
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        Aug 12 2011: (Sorry this won't let me nest this response properly.)

        I suspect your definition of 'average' may indeed be 'above average, but less than mine' (on a pure numeric IQ basis) - i.e. not actually average.

        I've observed that there is a point at which you can tell that if the person you are dealing with isn't understanding what you are saying, you simply need to change the frame of reference or make the right analogy for all the pieces to fall into place, versus repeating yourself, slower. Or, they can articulate why what you are saying isn't connecting or at least the point of contention/break-down.

        As I get older and more crotchety, I find myself actually experiencing physical pain in having to repeat myself for a third time or even just while dealing with a lack of willingness to try.

        (And I am a firm believer in multiple intelligences, so I agree that people may have areas of strengths and weakness. But having spent a couple of weeks with this particular person, it is highly unlikely that there is an area that she would dominate.)
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        Aug 12 2011: ARGH, stupid nesting limitations! This is to Alyson:

        If I didn't have other more important, and frankly far more interesting things to do, I might agree with you. But I do. And, unfortunately, I am apparently completely transparent when irritated (OK, completely transparent all the time).

        I'm a big proponent of streamlining things. I initially asked the question because I am really good at identifying who will and who will not 'work' in my sphere and am interested in the 'tells'. It usually happens so fast that slowing it down to analyze what the keys are seemed interesting to me.

        Edit: I am fully aware that both "more important" and "more interesting" are judgments I am making based on my interests and priorities. I did, however, promise to help someone with something, erroneously thinking it would take x-amount of time, not 3x.
        • Aug 12 2011: It is an interesting question, because you are right, determining the intelligence of someone generally happens so quickly that its hard to pinpoint what it is you are doing. I enjoyed the exercise.

          Best of luck to you and your trainee.
      • Aug 15 2011: Hey Jason,

        Apologies for the late reply, was quiet busy with work n formalizing on a new job that I would be taking up from September. I understand the sentiment expressed in your reply but please see my original comment in the context of the discussion topic. I guess you overunderstood the point I was making. My comment was not about how I would segregate people, judge them on the basis of my own concept of 'smart' and cherry-pick them n decide whether to converse with them or not. Who am I in the first place to do anything like that? In my opinion, smartness/ intelligence has nothing to do when it comes to having great conversations at a personal level coz the best personal conversations I've had have used the least amount of words..My comment is only limited to the context of work and to get things done especially in situations that require some quick thinking and fast actions. There are some people who just understand and act fast and identifying them is very important in fire-fighting situations. It's not about good/bad/'my-type' or 'not-my type', it's just about arresting the need of the hour!

        Hoping we agree on some of these points now:) Beyond all this, how's life n everything else?
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    Aug 9 2011: I have worked with disadvantaged people for the past 35 years, many of whom were highly intelligent. Upon reflection, the clearest indicators of this seemed to be a look in their eyes that Ratal described as a "twinkle" along with a sense that they were processing information rather than simply taking it in. There is a curiosity, a drive to explore and clarify whatever may be potentially interesting that usually becomes evident after a moment of reflection. Conversation becomes more an exploration than an exchange of information or desire to impress. Many of these people were poorly educated (one had even been diagnosed as severely mentally retarded), so there language seemed less of an indicator than a sense that they were looking beneath the surface and searching for connections that were not immediately obvious.

    That said, I agree with Thomas that kindness trumps intelligence. I would much rather have a conversations with a kind person who was less intelligent than a highly intelligent person who is unkind.
  • Aug 11 2011: Im not sure what you mean by "finding my level." I dont seek out more intelligent people or try to avoid less intelligent people, so I dont try to "find" anything regarding IQ. Now "EQ," thats another story. I definitively try to find people with higher EQ, regardless of their IQ. But I do agree with others that your first clue regarding intelligence is in the eyes. Intelligent people do have a "brighter" quality to their eyes, and they are generally active observers, very aware of their surroundings. They look alert, they look aware of their surrounding, and curious about whats going on.


    Of course sometimes people are lost in thought, so I mean that when they are engaged with someone else you will notice those things.

    In conversation, a dead give away is flexibility. More average minds have trouble speculating and tend to be more inflexible in their thinking. Curiosity is also a dead give away. More intelligent people are more keen to understand your point, even if they then disagree, than the more average mind. They ask more questions, generally. Vocabulary, the use of jargon or labels, etc., I do not find useful in determining someones actual intelligence, although, too heavy a reliance upon these things is generally a give away to me that I am dealing with a very educated average mind.
    • Aug 12 2011: I agree with you Alyson, we don't go around looking for smart people nor we try to put them at some level. I interact with everyone that comes across my way from the gifted people to the non gifted. And we learn the differences in them. By the way you find smart people in places where smart people tend to go you get the point. ;)
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      Aug 12 2011: Certainly, we all interact with whoever is in our sphere, but when we select out for long-term friendship, i.e. people we want to see again and again, there tend to be certain commonalities.

      When you look around you at the people you have deliberately selected as friends, do they irritate you with pointless chatter? Yeah, I didn't think so. I have a couple of friends who, frankly, I think talk too much (for my taste) but at least the content is interesting.

      I get the whole Zen "you must learn to transcend your circumstances" thing (which really conflicts with the whole "be in the moment" thing, doesn't it?), but if I have to find my "happy place" to spend time with you, it just becomes much easier not to spend time with you, doesn't it? I'm also pretty sure most people don't want to be transcended.
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        Aug 12 2011: I think you perhaps misunderstand the concepts you refer to as Zen. Spontaneity (living in the Now) is freedom from the usual constraints of 'craving, aversion and confusion' all three of which the thinking mind imposes or operates from inside of. The Zen concept here is No Mind (wu hsin/mu shin) or acting out of what is needed in this situation right here and now without thinking of how someone else might act, or what if this or that, or what will happen next, or what will people think, or etc etc etc (the thinking mind). Transcendence, if I understand it well enough to speak of it, is simply finding what you need in whatever is available right now: liking what you have vs having what you like. I don't think spontaneity and 'transcendence' are in conflict - if fact they seem to be two sides of the same coin.
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          Aug 12 2011: "I think you perhaps misunderstand the concepts you refer to as Zen." Probably.

          For me, finding what I need in moments of "too many words, not enough content" involves tuning the person out. ;-)

          I'm sort of being facetious, but mostly not. There's a reason why I run my own business.
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    Aug 6 2011: It is always a challenge for individuals to find like minded people but I think that the Internet makes it far easier. I am happier since I discovered TED and the wonderful conversationalists here. Many people in my day to day life have no interest in the things that I find fascinating. It is a real relief to be able to discuss them here. In the conversations, people tend to engage where they find something of interest and I have begun to notice that friendships build with time. Conversation styles may vary too but like finds like- not necessarily in perspective but often in conversational style.
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      Aug 6 2011: The same for me, Debra. In my day to day life I am really an odd ball. I have to look outside to find people with like interests. TED is a wonderful place to be except that philosophizing is something I love and that seems to be on the bottom of the totem pole if existent at all. Good to see you again.
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        Aug 8 2011: Big hug to you Helen! I am glad we are all able to exercise our true selves here.
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      Aug 9 2011: I too am much happier since I've found TED, for all the reasons you've stated Debra! I'm not too sure about the conversation style though... My own seems to vary very much...

      I'm in a bit of a hurry but I just felt the need to comment so that I find my way back here!
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      Aug 9 2011: This thread has reminded me that I should have mentioned something about context in my initial post. For one thing, I posted my question here (TED) rather than, say, Facebook because there seemed a higher odds of getting better answers from this self-selecting pool. (To be fair, I probably could have posted it in a couple of select groups on Facebook as well, it's not like I am saying smart people don't have fb accounts.)

      It's one thing to walk into a trip9 meeting and know people have been pre-selected, but I am looking for those keys that give intelligence away when you strike up a conversation in a grocery store or any other environment that isn't necessarily selected out.
      • Aug 9 2011: Gisela, you are onto something.

        Why not post the question onto your FB account, too? This would lead to a greater sample size and more feedback, as well as presenting the opportunity to compare the two groups' conception of 'intelligence' if they differ. This would lead to another wrinkle to your question - Not only would we be able to analyze how intelligent people find their level (we seem to have reached a consensus on this thread so far that body language is indicative of intelligence), but also how intelligent people with different conceptions of intelligence might relate to one another.

        Actually, posting several different questions on both TED and FB could lead to some really interesting data - for both us in the community, as well as TED and FB as organizations.

        IMO, I often equate the concept of 'the Artist' to one of high intelligence. Not that every 'artist' is a genius, but that there is an artistic aspect to every genius. Curiosity, the need for understanding and expression, the originality and fresh insights, discipline - all abound in both a true Artist and one of high intelligence. I guess that would be list of how to identify an intelligent person, then:

        1. Curiosity 2. a need for understanding 3. a need for expression 4. originality 5. discipline
        (Not listed in order of importance.) And the techniques you identified - conceptual analysis, anchoring, witty quips - are typically the instruments used to demonstrate the traits I have listed.

        Great question, great thread.

        SEP
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    Aug 14 2011: My husband says that you can measure someone's intelligence based on the lies they tell. He believes that a person will only tell a lie sophisticated enough that *they themselves would believe it.* If a lie is so ridiculous that only a person with no logic skills would believe it, then you can assume that the liar has no logic skills because he would find that lie believable. If a person tells lies that are complex in a very believable way, then you know that this person knows how reason works, and also that person understands a lot about what the listener might be thinking.

    This approach has a bonus: If you meet someone whose lies convince you, you won't even realize they were lying. So you get to go through life thinking that you never meet anyone smarter than yourself. :-P
  • Aug 10 2011: They let their words flow and have a great deal of confidence in improvising and facing failure.
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      Aug 13 2011: I really like the last part of this - the confidence in facing failure.

      I have observed an ability to not allow themselves to be defined by a failure and no need to hide what didn't work for them in a specific situation. It may be because they've learned early that certain situations require brute force, while others can be finessed, and others solutions are a combination of the two.

      But "does this person speak freely of things that have failed" is probably a good clue.
      • Aug 13 2011: Yes a person that is constantly learning, especially from failure,s is a good indicator. This is not to be confused with dwelling on failures, being stuck and disheartened. It is a confidence in speaking of them as a great turning point or lesson.
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    Aug 10 2011: One of my favorite movies of all time is Being There staring Peter Sellers, and the interesting philosophical concept here is that intelligence or brilliance or any aspect of another's character is really a reflection of the other person, for it is through your own perspective and eyes you, well, percieve and judge anything, not just people. One character saw him as a genius, while another saw him as sketchy or has something to hide (interstingly enough that character was a politician!), another saw tenderness of the human spirit and perhaps a savior. This is not a new concept in the least, but I absolutely loved how this concept was portrayed in the movie. The joke, was that this man had a low IQ, quite simple mided, truthful and pure, but was hidden away and brought up as a gardner in a rich mans home. Television was his only connection to the outside world. No one knew his story, apart from a maid who helped bring him up, and the audience.

    I feel the issue here is not about finding someone who lets say matches your intellligence, but in finding a common connection. The issue of levels, or dropping back to a level another can cope with etc, well that is a percetion thing too wouldn't you say? How do you know another wasn't dropping back something for you because you dont seem to "get it" so to speak. Two intelligent people where one has deeper knowledge of mathematics, and the other a deeper knowledge of law and ethics may not have a very deep conversation on either subject for they fail to connect, but that doesn't mean neither is any less intelligent than the other.

    I feel it is a matter of perception and connection.
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    Aug 14 2011: This question is a sign of foolishness in my opinion.
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      Aug 14 2011: And you are entitled to it!

      (Of course, I wouldn't consider immediately dismissing things out of hand without contemplating them to be a particularly positive sign. But that's just my opinion.)
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      Aug 14 2011: Dear Eduard,
      The foundation of education: No question is foolish! It all depends on how you wish to address it.
      Kind regards,
      Astra
      • Aug 15 2011: I disagree Astra. A foolish question is one that is asked without attempting to solve it yourself first. They tend to be the result of laziness.
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          Aug 15 2011: Hi Jason (and Eduard,)

          I would disagree. Your reply, Jason, assumes there is only one reason to ask a question (to solve it.)

          There are many reasons to ask questions: social bonding, curiosity, clarification, "testing the waters" to see what others think; checking for other, unthought of perspectives; misunderstanding, teaching, and so on.

          And, in my opinion, there are no "foolish questions." There are, however, foolish answers.
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          Aug 16 2011: Just that I said:" this question is a sign of foolishness '' for obvious reasons I think, not that this is a foolish question . I don't know and I don't care if there are foolish questions or not.
      • Aug 16 2011: Thomas, Atstra wrote "The foundation of education...". Therefore the questions in that context would be ones in which we are seeknig answers. Therefore my assertion stands.

        Obviously in a situation where there in attempt to solve a problem, this would be untrue, but frankly, I think it's pretty obvious that's outside of the scope of mmy comment. So I'm not sure what you're disagreeing with.

        Do you not feel in an educational environment, that is behooves students to try and figure things out for themselves first before asking?
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          Aug 16 2011: Hi Jason,

          No. I think it behooves us to make education an exciting and enthralling undertaking. We do not do this if we make the student feel foolish (for any reason.)

          [In general, we do not make education compelling for any number of other reasons. But that is a topic for another conversation.]

          I have responded to questions I thought were foolish only to find the questioner had a unique, and quite intelligent, perspective that was outside of my frame of reference.

          As an aside, I do not think the object of education should be to find answers. At least not in the conventional sense of the term.

          Western education is primarily based on the principle of "Right/Wrong." There are questions and they have a right answer - one right answer; and they have many wrong answers.

          This practice teaches us to learn and remember information (at least until we take a test;) it does not teach us to think.

          I think asking questions, even foolish ones - and encouraging such inquiries - does more to promote and teach active and creative thinking than does our current (Western and Chinese) system of education.
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          Aug 17 2011: Dear Jason,

          Thomas has replied so much more eloquently to your remark than I could, so I will just take shelter under that umbrella with a ‘thumbs up’ :)I enjoy the discussion and your points of view, thank you both for that.

          In an attempt to spiral this conversation back to the original conversation topic by Gisela one remark to: ‘Do you not feel in an educational environment, that is behooves students to try and figure things out for themselves first before asking?’ In my opinion it depends on the circumstances. If you take ‘an educational environment’ to mean a school or similar institution, then ‘yes’ because there students are trained to function that way.

          However, to me anywhere can be an educational environment. Some people grow up with a ‘Why?’ period in their youth. Some are silent and observe more. We learn differently and we express ourselves differently. And of course it isn’t a black and white vision and certainly not a case of ‘always’ or ‘never’.
          To me a smart person does ask questions, when something is unclear to him/her (as you are doing on this TED forum) and it would be ideal if the person addressed receives that question with enough love and wisdom to provide a respectful answer.

          With respect,
          Astra
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    Aug 14 2011: When I meet someone, I gauge our relative IQs based on:
    Does this person contribute spontaneous insight and original ideas to the conversation?
    Are their jokes sophisticated, original and surprising? (or literal and unoriginal?)
    Is this person curious about the world?
    Is this person open to new ideas?
    How does this person act when he doesn't know something or turns out to be wrong?
    Can this person deal with grey areas?
    Does this person follow side trails in the conversation?
    Does the person acknowledge nuances?
    Am I hearing a lot of bad logic? Does the person defend failed logic?
    Has this person tried to convince me to attend their church and/or try homeopathy?
  • Aug 15 2011: Body language. Smart often shows itself way before you hear it. It cannot be described. Not by me, anyway.

    We often get the values and abilities wrong, but not the intelligence.
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    Aug 12 2011: Among the people I assume to be very smart I have noted that they are often looking very curious and empathic to others, at least if they are kind people. It seems to me that they are willing to trust anybody unless the others are proven unworthy. Also I have noted (like someone has said before) that they are more interested in exploring a thing while discussing it instead of simply exchanging opinions about it. So I think they recognize each other simply by recognizing the open-minded and naive approach in the other.
  • Aug 12 2011: I think the "twinkle" that many people describe on here is much more specific than just "I'm a smart person too" for instance I consider myself to be above average intelligence, but my favorite topics are biology and physics. So if a mathematician were to come up and start talking about proofs of different equations I doubt I would have much of a "twinkle" at all. Rather than "I'm a smart person too" I believe it's more of a "I'm just as interested in this topic as you are".

    The actual intelligence measurement seems to be an unconscious dance we do with each other, each taking a turn ramping up the conversation until the highest level both parties are comfortable with is reached. Now I don't have any qualms whatsoever about talking with people with less "smarts" in my field. In fact they sometimes have insights that I completely overlooked, just as a jeep can go places a Ferrari wouldn't dare tread. But sometimes it's nice speeding down the road with another Ferrari and giving your engine a good workout.
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    Aug 9 2011: I admit my observations are not absolutes by any means. In my experiences I have rather generally found that with higher intelligence comes greater language skills. I am not only speaking of English speakers, but also speakers of Spanish and Italian that I have met.

    I have always been amazed by the power we have over language (and in comparison, the power it has over us). As you said it is not impressive if one can ONLY utilize language in one single way, but it becomes impressive when one can manipulate the language to suit the needs at hand. In essence, this was my original premise: exceptional people can manipulate conversation to suit their needs, whereas oftentimes people of lesser intelligence or average intelligence are often fine with never changing the language at hand. I agree that the exceptional person is one who can converse within the language of science, art, literature, etc. and consciously switch to colloquial language as the situation demands.

    That being said, having thought more on the topic since my first post, I somewhat agree with Thomas, that intelligence is not necessarily needed as much as a certain sensitivity, insomuch as I believe that we evolve a certain ability to read others, subconsciously, that guides our conversation. We do this same thing everyday, in that we know when to censor our tone, word choice, even sentence structure, depending on who we are talking to. Typically when confronting authority we choose somewhat submissive language with shorter sentences. When confronting those with strict convictions, be it religious or philosophical, we tend to subconsciously alter our language to find a way that is conducive to furthering the conversation. In order to find the level of another person we must use this same type of subconscious "profiling".

    Again, I'm only a college undergrad. I'm no expert by any means.
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    Aug 9 2011: I would never forfeit the opportunity for a "teachable moment". Being someone of higher intelligence is a gift not just to be shared among those who have been identified as such. What I find truly captivating is mastery that allows all parties to be educated through the dialogue. Now that's not to say that you need to go around preaching to people or making people feel belittled, however, it is always empowering to make all parties as enlightened as you and feel as though they could not have had a better day without the clarity you provided through your conversation. I guess the other thing is that being that we are all in dynamic environments and have been brought together, no matter what level of intelligence...seek to find the genius in someone else in every interaction you have. I'm sure that even someone you would never expect to engage in conversations can sometimes leave you astonished if you strike the right cord. Just my thoughts.
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    Aug 9 2011: I agree with Thomas Jones in that those three things are tell-tale signs of a person of higher intellectual capacity; however, one cannot strictly define how intelligent people converse versus people of lower intelligence. If we are talking about solely about how people find people of like intellectual standing in CONVERSATION, then I believe it has much to do with the higher language and communicative skills of more intelligent individuals. There is no "spidey-sense" (excuse my Spiderman reference) that tells exceptional individuals when they are around other exceptional individuals, but I believe that people with higher intelligence recognize traits in others that allow them to distinguish between the exceptional and the less than exceptional.

    I have found that people of higher intelligence oftentimes employ much more complicated sentence structure, subordinating many different ideas into flowing dialogues. As well, the word choice that these people employ (obviously, as a result of their higher intelligence level) tends to be more sophisticated. Not only do these people possess linguistic skills that surpass that of the less-exceptional individuals, but they also tend to communicate more effectively with their body language. The movement of their hands and facial expression, as well as the (usually) relaxed posture of their body during conversation tends to show someone who is of higher intelligence--though this is not always true, since there are the extremely-gifted individuals who are very poor conversationalists.

    In comparison, the speech of the less-exceptional tends to be choppy, with less varied diction and generally more colloquial terms. The body language can seem more tense and uncomfortable.

    Honestly, I seem to pick up more on the way someone uses their language to convey their thoughts, but that's just me. I am a lover of languages and grammar, so I may have a biased response.
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      Aug 9 2011: Hi Jordan,

      It's great you agree with the three points in my reply, however, they aren't mine. I copied them from the text in Gisela McKay's original post.

      My point is we should "find the level" of the person we are talking with. I am not convinced this takes what we conventionally call intelligence so much as it requires sensitivity. Probably what Gardner would refer to as Interpersonal Intelligence.

      In most cases, I believe kindness trumps intelligence.
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      Aug 9 2011: Hmm. I would have said that language is often more indicative of education than intelligence - and while there is often a correlation between the two, there are many very bright people who leave the education system behind, and plodders who are only moderately intelligent but work well within the academic system.

      I have found that some of the brightest people I have met display a playfulness with concepts and mental agility even when speaking in completely plain English, incorporating slang, and not resorting to langue soutenue formality at all. Moreover, some others in that category are the most socially awkward people I've met - at least until they reach a certain level of comfort with the people they are conversing with (or "with whom they are conversing" for those who prefer grammatical correctness to flow.)

      It's all a matter of context. I would say someone who can ONLY formulate sentences with 19th century sentence structure is much less intelligent than one who can shift from the specific language of their science one minute to the language of the street the next.
      • Aug 10 2011: Hi Gisela,For what it's worth, I was identified as gifted, and very much resemble your above description. I grew weary of academics. I used to speak in very formal terms (and occasionally still drop a multisyllabic nugget that raises eyebrows) but have incorporated a great deal of slang and informal speech into my vocabulary.

        In response to your question, there are so many forms of intelligence, I'm not sure if there is a common theme.

        Perhaps cars would be a good analogy. I'm sort of a Jeep. I'm not the swiftest thing, and I can be unwieldly, but I go places others can have a very tough time following.

        A good friend of mine is a Ferrari. He has trouble following me down some paths but damnit when that road smooths out, he's leaving me in his dust and impatiently waiting at the destination.

        Another friend of mine is a minivan. Not fast, doesn't offroad, but the sheer volume you can fit in there is astounding.

        So I think the moral is, people identify other intelligent people by recognizing their strengths, because generally, they will display some type of strength in conversation, and it will be reasonably obvious.
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          Aug 10 2011: I love your car analogy! I may not be the most well read person in the world, but I am one of those that get the gist of things so to speak without wanting or needing to get in too deep. I prefer to take things that can be seemingly hard to understand or deeply profound and find a common language that most could relate to or understand. I suppose that is why I find Dr Suess to be a pretty brilliant man! I am not good with cars though, i wonder what mine would be? Hmmmmm...
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      Aug 9 2011: Hello Jordan, I was also under the similar kind of impression that smart people tend to use Sophisticated language. However, during my recent training at IIM, Bangalore, I could gauge that the more an intelligent a person is, the better his focus on delivery in communication. He /she believes that it is his responsibility to communicate his ideas and do not assume that others will appreciate his jargons. I have also observed many learned individuals to be extremely simple in their communication. They cut “English” (read “complicated vocabulary”) out of the conversation and discuss the basics.

      Only and only when an individual is unsure of his concepts or wants to show is knowledge prowess, would he take support of complicated terminology.
      • Aug 12 2011: I completely agree with you Mayur, although as others have said before communicative skills can be entirely separate from the many kinds of intelligence.

        However i respect people far more when they are able to communicate a concept from their field to almost anyone... I think, those who have the ability to clarify something effectively and minimally in simple terms, are more focused on the purpose of their communication... which is to attempt to successfully convey understanding and keep the listener interested. And i also think people with this skill are more likely to have a deep understanding of their topic. It's as if their understanding is stored entirely separate from language, so rather than regurgitating some definition - they form their own definition appropriate to the immediate audience, and possibly even catered to the discussion at hand.

        These people are far more useful in an educative way. It is a skill in itself, one which i greatly admire.

        On a note of language; generally I think it's ok to use lesser known esoteric words... provided they actually help to simplify sentences and retain context for example, this can in some cases make tricky concepts easier to analyse. Conversely, words that only add flamboyance and colour to conversation at the expense of simplicity, do not serve any functional purpose... and as nice as they can be, i think they can sometimes hinder the listeners understanding.
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        Aug 12 2011: You said that well, and I basically agree. I can't disagree that educated speakers are more able to judge and adjust to varying registers, but I think it is really and specifically 'training to speak in different registers' that prepares one to speak successfully in different registers. Politicians are good at this generally; medieval Latin teaching university dons - not so much. If IIM means India Institute of Management, I suspect there is superb training in speaking at the appropriate register.
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      Aug 12 2011: For me, when I meet or observe total strangers...I can tell if they can offer me intelligent conversations by their body frame (language), they way they carry themselves when they walk into a room, most of them are never hurried or threatened (always confident), and have a pleasant facial expression...and" intelligence" or "smart" is knowing anything that has been scientifically proven.....you can't argue with science, right?
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    Aug 12 2011: I would say that you find that a person matches your level when the amount of intellectual pleasure mutually exchanged with this person is high (hence you find that talking to this person is rewarding).

    Now going a bit further I would say that a rewarding experience may be achieved:

    - when their levels of education + experience are similar
    - when their interest + knowledge in a particular subject matter is high

    I would also say that mutual affection and level of honesty are included in the equation, but I don't know.
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    Aug 12 2011: I think that all people (at least can, but most often do) find "their level" or group they (want to) belong to.

    The idea of 'like attracts like' and the urge to find comparable peers is a strong human motivator.
    Smart people seek smart people
    Rich people seek rich people
    same goes for beauty, art, sports, interests, status,...

    How do we recognize people who are like us? Probably our stereotyping skills are a first good thing to look at as an explanation... mutual acceptance during/after meeting some-one would be a logical next step.

    But maybe we can put it to the test?
    - try and bring a group of people together
    - do a matching of their profiles to predict in what cluster of people they would end up.
    - if only the intelligent end up clustered together, and no other personality traits are explanatory for forming of groups, you have strong support of your theory. If intelligence is a worse predictor than other traits, one needs to assume the more general hypothesis of 'like seeks like'.
    • Aug 12 2011: Nice experimental design. Would love to see the outcomes.

      :)
  • Aug 11 2011: Gisela, thank for posting this stimulating topic

    As has been said, "Smart" comes in many varieties. This needs to be stressed. If the definition of "smart" is to be: "someone selected by a committee to attend a certain function or institution" then we must be clear that this is exactly what we mean. There is nothing wrong with this definition. Perhaps we can add to it additional points like "well-educated," "history of accomplishment," etc.

    But if this is what you are looking for when you seek out other "smart" people, you should be aware that professional con-men often seek out self-designated "smart" people when looking for a target. This is because people who know they are "smart" in one area (like business operations or particle physics) are convinced that they must therefore be smart in other areas. This false confidence makes them easy prey to "confidence" men, who simply ply their pride and take their money. As is said, pride goes before a fall.

    Also, on a more personal note, perhaps the most impressive individual I have ever met would not fit into any category of "smart" people. We became friends when I had a summer job at a fast food restaurant. without any formal education or access to philosophy or history this friend would say the most profound and beautiful things. He was small and African-Anerican, yet had an enormous caucasian wife who he loved. both their family were against it. He said, "I just don't understand why they care what color her skin is." After a theft at work he said, "Why would you steal from someone else? You'd hate it if they stole from you." And he meant it. And he lived accordingly. Staggering stuff.

    So, Gisele, while you may find exciting people with "sparkle" in their eyes and effective co-workers with a history of accomplishment, you should also be on the lookout for good "friends". Which, I admit, is just as vague a term as "smart."

    :)
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      Aug 12 2011: Ah yes, there is a big difference between book smart and street smart, or being able to spot patterns and being able to read people. Thank you for your reply.

      As for friends, mine tend to be culturally varied, but philosophically similar - you can select your friends far easier than you can limit the people you interact with on a day-to-day basis. The philosophical similarity is more stylistic than say creating an echo chamber (because where would be the fun in that?), but if you are going to make an argument I disagree with, you'd better have some damned good reasons because I'm not all that good about biting my tongue for more than a few minutes.

      As my best friends will tell you, if I am this crotchety now, I am going to be one hell of a scary old lady. ;-)
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    Aug 11 2011: I think you hit the mark with number one, a willingness to leave conversational basics. The people I find most intellectually fun to talk to are the ones who are most willing leave convention behind. For me, these people are usually philosophy students or graduate students who spend their days thinking about theory. Or people who love talking about Harry Potter and other grand fiction. If they don't feel discomfort at leaving reality, I consider that a mark of intellect. Because for me, intellect has to do with willingness to be reflective on things you are not comfortable about.
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    Aug 9 2011: I would look for open-mindedness and a flexibility in connecting ideas fruitfully that are not obviously connected. The ability to -and interest in- making connections between ideas would to me suggest an intelligent person likely to arrive at interesting insights.
  • Aug 9 2011: I think one's expectations of a person play a role in identifying one's intelligence. Many comments have been made about the 'twinkle in the eye' phenomenon, but from my own experience, the recognition of the twinkle comes AFTER they have demonstrated intelligence (and altered my perception of them) through one of the techniques Gisela mentions above. It makes me wonder if the 'twinkle' is there at all, or simply serves as a symbol for my own mental construct of an intelligent person which gets overlaid on many intelligent people I meet. The concept of an objectively perceived 'twinkle in the eye' of intelligent people is a bit mystical for my tastes, but I cannot deny the subjective reality of it.

    One thing I have not seen mentioned on here but that I have also experienced is the - intelligent laugh. A bit of knowing, a drop of cruelty, a dash of incredulity, with equal parts of joy and malice. As a corollary, I believe that intelligent people also share a heightened sense of irony which serves as an alternative sense of humor that they can use in conversation to identify one another.

    SEP
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    Aug 6 2011: How do smart people "find their level" in conversation?

    I would suggest doing the following:

    1. A willingness to leave the conversational basics behind and explore deeper into the subject (and if the person they are conversing with does not follow, drop back to the level the other can cope with).

    2. Anchoring - taking the current topic of conversation and looking for a frame of reference they are already familiar with to understand it better.

    3. Quips and parallel commentary - fleeting comments that are not meant to derail the main thrust of the conversation.

    ----------------
    Also, I would suggest you find "their" level. And have fun.
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    Aug 14 2011: Dear Gisela,

    Let me firstly say that I enjoy your views and always read your comments when I come across them.

    Much has already been addressed on this topic but I would like to add my two cents: With regard to the ‘smart people’ and that in relation to the three ‘tells’ you posted I take ‘smart people’ to mean gifted conversationalists and not just IQ smart. (Since those ‘tells’ pertain to face-to-face moments and not, for example, digital conversation like this one.) A gifted conversationalist also has high EQ and is able to engage others from all walks of life on any topic in animated conversation.

    With regard to your remark: ‘I have observed that they can identify each other relatively quickly…’This, I feel, may have to do with the topic of interest (e.g. a common vocation) and not necessarily with being ‘smart’. I feel that everyone is smart in their own way….and some people are just good people-persons.

    People usually sort out circumstances, people, topics etc. that they feel comfortable with and/or motivated by. For example: I was exhilarated in finding the TED forum because it offers so many great discussions…that I don’t easily and readily encounter elsewhere. However, I haven’t been able to get some of my ‘smart’ friends to join yet. But that may be another topic :)

    Do you also have ‘smart-people tells’ when it comes to digital conversation?

    Kind regards,
    Astra
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      Aug 15 2011: Thank you for the kind words.

      I think it was identified elsewhere in the thread that there are people who seem to be able to pick up on conclusions or next steps even before you finish outlining the premises - and this can take place both online and in person. Sentences (usually in person) such as "Ahh, I see where you are going with that." are signs that someone has taken the threads you are weaving, pulled them together with information (experience, past conversation) they already have stored in their minds and put the pieces together.

      It could be argued that that is area of expertise specific, but more than that, I have experienced it as simple induction or deduction (reasoning) even where they do not necessarily have great depth of experience in that field.

      I don't know that I would limit it to people who are gifted conversationalists - while that certainly may be one of the "multiple intelligences".
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    Aug 14 2011: i find that deeper topics of discussion just seem to reaffirm the importance of "lower level" topics.
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    Aug 14 2011: Sixth sense.
  • Aug 14 2011: There are not enough intelligent ppl my age. I'm 27 and I find myself among most of my friends having to dumb down my conversation. It is very hard to transition my intelligent output. I can transition with street conversational skills and how I would talk in a industry or business setting quite well. But I'm talking about pure sheerness of my peers actually being able to understand me. I find myself accidentally but unknowingly cracking technical jokes in pairs of 15 while mixing them with internet humor in a totally present or futuristic tense and not realizing that ppl don't understand me. Because I'm so interested in sharing my intelligence with others that I do recognize after the first 10 minutes that I lost them in the first 40 secs. Because they are not responding and given a blank look as to what I'm even talking about. I'm a african american male and I find quite a bit resentment among my peers sometimes and or other ppl. I find it interesting that I did not use to be like this or maybe I always was but did not apply myself for whatever reason. I have not finished college but I attend Le Cordon Bleu now. It may be my own cognitive abilities coming into play but maybe its the way I learn. I find myself adapting and learning at a staggering rate especially when I'm trying to learn and then my brain seems to grab more on maybe days later after I have viewed a particular subject. It will then I guess absorb knowledge and then I don't know I start to form theories around the theories of the said knowledge that I was trying to absorb. I've always been a thinker outside of the box and for that I've always been a sort of outcast. I am extroverted and introverted at the same time. I am very social but only to those I've grown accustomed to talking to. I sometimes keep quiet and shelter my intelligence either to shy away from making ppl feel insignificant.
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    Aug 14 2011: One of the biggest indicators of intelligence is efficiency in communication. An intelligent man can clearly communicate a thought with fewer words than his peers. His speech will lack the words "uh, um," and most importantly "$%^#." Haha. It is true that curses indicate a lower vocabulary.
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      Aug 14 2011: This is a common misconception. Uh and um and other verbal stumbles (sometimes including curse words) are thought to be indicators that the person is putting together their thoughts as they speak. Speech that's free of uh, um, ehhh could be memorized, pre-planned, or simply an expression of ideas that the speaker is not thinking much about.

      They are sort of meta-words that mean "I'm thinking about this" or "I'm about to tell you something new"
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        Aug 14 2011: I'm aware of this. This is actually an important part of the point I was making. A smart individual rarely stumbles & generally knows what he is going to say before he says it. An intelligent person has memorized vast amounts of information, and is aware of the depth of their own understanding of a given subject. This leads to confident speech even when conversing on a subject that the individual doesn't know much about. The majority of the things this person says will likely be pre-planned to some extent.
        • Aug 15 2011: I'm probably both smart and intelligent. Because I rarely stumble but I absorb massive amounts of information that I'm sometimes not very familiar with. But I keep reading and associating with ppl that do. And I absorb their knowledge and incorporate it into mine. And analyze their theories with mine and the ones that I previously absorbed and come with a conclusion of a standpoint in knowledge. But also I stumble over my words sometimes when I've absorbed to much information in a given day and my mind is blank. And maybe 5 min after I talk with that person or we begin a totally different subject it comes to my mind. I'm smart, intelligent, and attentive, astute. I took a IQ test recently and it was inclusive. I didn't fail but didn't pass. Doctor said I had a average IQ but he wasn't really sure and he said so. He just gave me a estimate. But see I passed all the complex tests but didn't do so well on the simpler ones. And that probably is think lot. Sometimes over think. People tell me that a lot. All the complex shapes, pattern and memorization skills that they tested me on I aced. It was actually crazy. Cause I didn't really memorize them. He asked me for a word that was the opposite of the word he spoke and it had to be on the screen. I only looked at the screen for 2 secs. And I just figured out a system of decisive similar antonyms that would make sense. But what do I know. Maybe my IQ is 92. Anyway, later.
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      Aug 17 2011: I would also disagree. Despite having excessive quantities of information in my brain, I add more all the time and I tend to mull over questions in light of recent updates.

      Granted, there are questions with relatively "stock" answers, but one of the reasons I get interviewers to send me a list of questions that I will be asked on air before-hand is so that they do not ask me something that requires I mull over and assemble an answer on the fly. It is true that most interviews don't go in that direction, but it has lead to dead air in the past while I run through my mental filing cabinets for the correct answer.

      In one-to-one conversation, I prefer people who refrain from asking banal questions (ones to which I have the answers immediately at hand).
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    Aug 13 2011: Other than communication & interpersonal skills, SMART people use common senses more than usual that gives them the clue to find out each other.

    Following the discussion below , it seems in some comments SMART is synonymous to INTELLIGENCE, if it is so than I am a bit confused.

    I know some highly intelligent (at least with in my domain) persons who being very introverted or non- communicative , don't have that much frriends, if someone else is not pro-active they might live a solitary life. Being intelligent they work best alone.
    • Aug 13 2011: Defining the terms is a little subjective as I can see by the way in my mind smart is book knowledge and intelligent is practical wisdom that Barry Schwartz speaks of in his talks. I can not remember how exactly he defines things, but it is interesting that in my mind I look at the words opposite your view. They are in fact, just words to express the same belief :)
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        Aug 14 2011: Yes , with subjective definition views can differ. What I see an "intelligent" person is one with above average IQ, but SMART person might have an average IQ but much more practical , having better interpersonal skill, may be a bit of jack of all trades.

        Having said that I don't mean that a person with High IQ can't be SMART person. Definitely s/he can and there are plenty examples, and that's a golden match of two qualities in one.
  • Aug 13 2011: The biggest indicator is creativity, in my opinion. How well can they "think outside the box" and shine things in a new and unique light for everyone else? There is a correlation between intelligence and creativity, so I try to use that as my "level-finder" :)
  • Aug 13 2011: It all end up being vocabulary. If you demonstrate a understanding of words that are obscure, then you denote knowledge which sometimes stands in for intelligent. Being eloquent is a show of education. Former president Bush might have been smart but his abysmal use of language made him appear less so. Obama speaks more eloquently and appears smarter but it doesn't mean he is.

    Smart people learn about everything they can. They have opinions in fields they are not experts in. The understand words like pharmacology, string theorem, uncertainty principle, metallic hydrogen, thorium reactors, cost benefit analysis, e.t.c.

    If a person has an understanding of these specialized words then one can judge them to be smart (they might not be though) if a person doesn't understand then you use simpler language (and in the process get frustrated).