Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Being Really Smart Can Work Against You, Especially if You're a Woman



Let's face it. A lot of people say they want to date someone who is intelligent, right? Or at least someone who can have a decent conversation, knows something about a few things in the world besides their favorite sports team, celebrity gossip magazine, or TV show. But when push comes to shove, this desire for intelligence is often only true as long as said person isn't "too smart."

Take this post, by an African-American woman with a PhD. About her current (or maybe now ex-boyfriend), she writes:

Recently, my romantic interested accused me of throwing my Ph.D. in his face. Most Black women with Ph.D.’s will know exactly how egregious an accusation that is, especially since we are hypersensitive and overly vigilant about making sure never to “throw our degrees” in the face of less-accomplished potential boos or family members.

During a casual phone convo about our respective college experiences, Dude who is a high school math teacher and has a couple of advanced degrees in math fields remarked to me that he found most humanities/ social science majors, including English and Political Science—my undergrad majors—“illegitimate.” Now given that all of my degrees are in humanities fields, I was majorly incensed.

And although I’m tired of used to –and normally unphased by– these inanely conceived verbal jousting matches that dudes engage highly educated women in in order to see if we are really as smart as our degrees seem to indicate, this time I was pissed.


She goes on to detail some of the ways that patriarchy and male privilege play a role in the frequent testing and questioning of female intelligence, and how women with advanced degrees sometimes struggle to find partners who will embrace them completely, intelligence and all. It's a pretty compelling post overall, touching on race, gender, traditional gender roles, higher education, and a whole swarm of other issues.

And I have to say that, even as a white man, someone with a lot of privilege, I have been nailed by the "too smart for my own good" bug. It has impacted my dating life in sometimes strange ways. When I was younger, I seemed to attract older women in wrecks of marriages who loved the fact that I could keep up with them intellectually, without also turning everything into a nasty debate. I also recall going a few dates with a woman over the past winter who had dropped out of college years ago, having questioned the value of pursuing a degree. This is something I totally resonated with, even though I have a Masters Degree, and thought it might be a great point of convergence for us. However, even as I spoke about how I'm not really into the academic world, and how I have learned as much and probably more outside of academia, she seemed to be fixated on the difference in formal education we had. So much so that she started employing tests of her own to see if I was "bullshitting" her.

"Oh, you know about Jack Kerouac, eh? What do you know about Jack Kerouac?"

(For some reason, his name came up and I said something about his well known novel On the Road. You might say the situation was ripe for such questioning. I mean, mentioning having read that novel is almost a cliche amongst some groups of folks.)

Anyway, I started talking about having visited an exhibit at a local art museum where the original manuscript of On the Road had been featured amongst other Beat Generation writer artifacts. Which led into how I actually think that Kerouac had better novels than On the Road, including the Dharma Bums, which led into mentioning my Zen meditation practice. All of that happened over the span of maybe three or four minutes, and once I landed on Zen, she was interested in sharing some stories about her time in a Zen monastery.

But I think the speed of associations that come out of my mouth at times still intimidated her because over the rest of that night, and during the next date, she kept speaking about how her memory wasn't as good as mine, and also making sideways comments about "college educated folks" and whatnot. Needless to say, there wasn't a third date.

Now, it's fair to say that some "smart folks" are also plenty arrogant and full of themselves. And certainly anyone who has a pattern of driving dates away through endless displays of "knowledge" and "fact sharing" would do well to take a look at themselves.

However, I don't get the sense that this is what's going on with the PhD woman from the post above, nor with at least some of the women who spoke in the comments section of her post. And while I'm willing to admit I have made mistakes, and/or done a bit of showing off on occasion, flaunting intelligence isn't how I normally operate in the world. One upping others is just another game, and I'm not into games - unless they are games where people are having fun and enjoying themselves together.

What do you make of intelligence and dating? Have you had any negative experiences, either as the "intelligent one" or as someone being talked down to by a "smarty pants"?

p.s. The song above is just for fun. Enjoy :)


5 comments:

  1. I sometimes think that people who say they want someone intelligent often overestimate their own ability to hold a conversation on loftier topics, so if the other person really can, then they feel overwhelmed.

    I haven't had a problem with being too smart (or with a partner being too smart), exactly, although just the other night I had the following exchange with a woman I was flirting with online:

    Her: I've been confused since your second remark
    Me: I have that effect on people

    I think I've been fortunate in that both I and my previous dates have tended to be good at handling it when confusion, or being outgunned in a debate, has occurred - both in not feeling threatened and in recognising when to tone it down and head for the gutter instead!

    I think, like with most things in dating and sex, communication is invaluable, and has to be a two-way street. If one feels outgunned intellectually, I think being honest about one's own state is important, without making it about the other person (e.g. "I feel a bit out of my depth here") and maybe asking questions that could help simplify the level a bit (one or two extreme examples occur in The Big Bang Theory, although played for laughs instead of showing how to engage socially!). When one feels one's date losing focus (or they make a statement of being out of their depth!) then recognise that and either simplify (without patronising) or else change the topic to something less highbrow. Let the two of you find a level that works for both!

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  2. I'm usually dating men who are smarter than I am, or at least have way better credentials. I barely made it through college at the cheapest place I could find (and it took me five years). I just went to get a degree.

    I've dated several men with law degrees. One of my exes had two degrees from MIT. He was scary smart! None of them ever talked down to me or made me feel lesser than. In fact, most of them envied the fact that I'm very street smart / real world smart while they were almost always purely book smart.

    The only time I've had an issue was when I was the one with the "better" degree. Or, even worse, a "better" job (was paid more). This scenario has never worked for me. I think several of these men were into gender roles though, so that could have been it. I didn't fit into the role they wanted me for.

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  3. "When one feels one's date losing focus (or they make a statement of being out of their depth!) then recognise that and either simplify (without patronising) or else change the topic to something less highbrow." I think this is pretty important. I have learned how to pay closer attention, and shift accordingly.

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  4. "The only time I've had an issue was when I was the one with the "better" degree. Or, even worse, a "better" job (was paid more). This scenario has never worked for me. I think several of these men were into gender roles though, so that could have been it. I didn't fit into the role they wanted me for." I would guess it's probably more difficult for men into "traditional" gender roles to date women that are smarter and more financially successful then they are.

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