TED Conversations

Gisela McKay

President and Co-Founder, pixcode


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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 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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