How Small Talk Can Be Used to Test Someone's Intelligence
How many times per week do you find yourself talking about topics you have no interest in or have already discussed a million times — just for something to say? Whether it’s waiting for a slow elevator with a co-worker, talking to an acquaintance at an industry event, or chatting with a complete stranger at a networking event, it happens to all of us. Can you use small talk to test someone's intelligence?
So, to combat these incredibly boring conversations, I started asking people unexpected, thought-provoking questions that couldn’t be answered with a simple yes or no. The results were awesome: I learned cool facts about other people that I would’ve never picked up in “normal” conversation — and as a bonus, we became closer.
And as a double bonus, I got to stop weighing in on the weather. In spite of seeming to have little useful purpose, small talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing the interpersonal distance. It serves many functions in helping to define the relationships between friends, colleagues, and new acquaintances.
In particular, it helps new acquaintances to explore and categorize each other’s social position. Small talk is closely related to the need for people to maintain a positive face and feel approved of by those who are listening to them. It lubricates social interactions in a very flexible way, but the desired function is often dependent on the point in the conversation at which the small talk occurs:
- Conversation opener: when the speakers do not know each other, it allows them to show that they have friendly intentions and desire some positive interaction. In a business meeting, it enables people to establish each other’s reputation and level of expertise. If there is already a relationship between the two talkers, their small talk serves as a gentle introduction before engaging in more functional topics of conversation. It allows them to signal their mood and to sense the mood of the other person.
- At the end of a conversation: suddenly ending an exchange may risk appearing to reject the other person. Small talk can be used to mitigate that rejection, affirm the relationship between the two people, and soften the parting.
- Space filler to avoid silence: in many cultures, silences between two people are usually considered uncomfortable and Tension can be reduced by starting phatic talk until a more substantial subject arises. Generally, humans find prolonged silence uncomfortable, and sometimes unbearable. That can be due to human evolutionary history as a social species, as in many other social animals, silence is a communicative sign of potential danger.
In some conversations, there is no specific functional or informative element at all. Yes, it can qualitatively. But you must know what to listen for. And the key is to listen well. This has been a ‘hobby’ of mine for several decades now. Let me share some of my favorite small talk signs of intelligence I have observed.
Test someone's intelligence … have patience
Leonardo Da Vinci called it “sfumato” or “smoke.” The idea is that not everything is clear, and the desire to have an answer now can lead someone into error. Intelligent people have patience with difficult, dense, or even ambiguous or vague subjects. Patience is defined as “the ability to endure, ” and in this case, a sign of intelligence is enduring not having a clear, definite answer.
Test someone's intelligence … talk only to share information
To them, small talk is simply that. Small. Meaningless even. It’s a waste of time.
Brutally honest with what they don’t know
I think a common trap that many people fall under is trying to pretend we understand something that we don’t know while nodding our heads meaninglessly. We do this because we don’t want to appear uninformed and unknowing. (I’m still working to improve on this myself)I think intelligent people get straight to the point. They say “I don’t understand this, can you explain it to me like I’m 5?”They could care less about what others perceive their understanding or intelligence to be. What they do care about is catching up and learning so that they can understand in the first place.
They know that without a solid understanding of the basics, there’s no hope for them to grasp the more complex material. Our brain’s mental capacity is a finite resource. Eventually, our brains will deteriorate. We will learn less and more slowly as we get older. Our memories will fade. New technologies and theorems and complex formulas will make their way into the world that will be hard for us to understand due to our upbringing and complacency with the status quo.
I think intelligent people desperately embrace the fact that time is a finite resource. There’s no equivalent of a “billionaire” when it comes to a time like there is for money. Time spent pretending is time wasted. Time spent learning and getting up to speed is time well-spent.
Related topic: Educated … Top-Notch with 12 Traits You Will Recognize
Test someone's intelligence … nothing to prove
They never feel the need to prove to other people how smart they are. They don’t brag about it. Casual acquaintances probably don’t even know. I think this is because they are so secure about their intelligence that it’s a non-issue to them. My father went to Harvard and had a stunning memory. He never used his IQ as a way to make other people feel inferior. People who want to let everyone know how smart they are — yeah, I doubt they are.
They read a lot and are constantly still learning. My father always took us to historical places or natural wonders during our summer vacations. Battlefields. Museums. Grand Canyon. Stuff like that.Our pleas to go to Disneyland went unheard. My father wanted to learn things on his days off — and his days on too. He not only read both fiction and nonfiction, but he also watched many documentaries.
Test someone's intelligence … seeking new perspectives
Intelligent people aren’t afraid or ashamed to tell you when they don’t know anything. I’ve had more than one doctor try and fake his way through a conversation when I knew more about a medical condition than he did. When I found a doctor, who said, “I don’t know. I’ll research that.” — I kept that doctor.
Test someone’s intelligence … are consistently curious
They ask questions. I guess they realize that the way you learn things is often to ask.