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Have You Ever Had This Happen?

You’re in a conversation with a group in a roomful of people. Suddenly someone in that group begins to speak “down” to you as if you don’t know what you’re talking about. As they continue to talk about whatever the subject is, they seem to be experts and know all there is to know about it. You begin to feel more and more inadequate and less sure of your ability. Finally, you “shut down” and walk away from the group feeling a distinct lack of confidence in yourself. It bothers you the rest of the day. But wait! Maybe it’s not YOU, maybe it’s the person you’re speaking with who makes you feel that way. What is a pseudo-intellectual? It’s someone who makes a habit of deliberately making others feel uneasy, incompetent and lacking in knowledge in order to make themselves seem to others to be smarter than they are. You have just been his/her victim.

The Dictionary Says:

A pseudo-intellectual is (a.) “someone who affects having proficiency in scholarly or artistic pursuits while lacking real knowledge or understanding of such topics,” or (b.) “a person pretending to be of greater intelligence than they are, for reasons of status.”  In other words they put on a public “face” of pretension, using a dishonest, insincere affectation. They employ the language, style and topics of an intellectual, but they lack the genuine morals, depth of knowledge or ability. They also tend to be verbal bullies. In the long run, the facade becomes transparent to others, and they find themselves alone and can’t figure out why.

Perhaps You Know Someone Who Fits The Definition?

I’ve come in contact with a few people who fit this description. They’re pompous, stuffy in their attitude toward others they deem of lesser intellect, and lower education. If you ever get on the bad side of one of these people be prepared to receive the most condescending, “cut-you-down-to-size” verbal barrage of your life. The way they feel superior is by making you feel inferior and most of the time it works. You come away  from a conversation with them, wondering what the heck just happened? Possibly you became convinced of your own stupidity. Don’t do that to yourself! You’ve just been a victim of a pseudo-intellectual, who really isn’t as smart as he/she pretends. Read on and I’ll tell you how to identify these people.

Their Technique : Disparagement and Patronization

First, your beliefs are attacked and you begin to feel foolish for having them. Then the next step is to question your knowledge and your source about the subject.  The tone of voice is one of patronization; “obviously I’m just being kind to you in your ignorance.” Then your opinions are ridiculed as having no validity.  This is designed to show you how smart they are and how dumb you are. By now, most of us begin to believe it. Either that or we find someone else to talk to. When someone ridicules your beliefs and opinions they are not your friend; instead they are actually quite cruel.

Does This Description Remind You Of Political Bashing?

Well yes it does. But it’s not limited to political opinion.  Countless friendships have been destroyed because of the pompous attitude of one toward the other on a matter of personal opinion.  If opinions differ on any subject, we all have a right to our own. Maybe they weren’t REAL friendships? But the worst of it is this: if YOU thought the friendship was a true one, the feelings of hurt and disappointment are real.

Not only that, but with today’s social internet world, friendships are won and lost on the turn of a written word. How many people have you unfriended on a social group because they were overbearing and insisted you think as they do? For that matter, how many people have unfriended you for the same reason? Since Social Media is a huge part of our lives these days, we often friend and unfriend quickly, on impulse and no one can blame you for choosing not to allow someone else to run your life and opinions.

What Is A True Intellectual?

First you need to know this: a true intellectual is a person of superior intellect, who seeks things of interest in aesthetic or philosophical matters, particularly on an abstract or general level. Now that we’ve got that in place, we realize that a pseudo (meaning not genuine, otherwise known as a sham) intellectual is obviously someone who pretends to that superior intellect. How can you tell the difference? It isn’t easy, but let’s explore what a true intellectual is; they love truth and they never feel they have to prove how smart they are.

“The intellectual is evidently motivated by a disinterested love of truth; the pseudo is interested in being right, or being thought to be right, whether he is or not.” — Sydney Harris, Detroit Free Press, 1981

A True Intellectual Doesn’t Have To Prove It

 “Superior people are only those who let it be discovered by others; the need to make it evident forfeits the very virtue they aspire to.”   ~ Sydney Harris, Excerpt from “Pieces of Eight” 1982.

A true intellectual doesn’t show off or try to prove it. It’s a part of him or her and they do not use “talking down” to another person, nor do they brag about their own intellectual or educational background. First of all, innate intelligence doesn’t depend on education, “book learning” as such. Through genetics some people are born with a higher or lower intelligence. This does NOT make either of them superior or inferior. In any given situation, one may or may not BEST the other. Often common sense comes into play and triumphs over any perceived advantage one has over the other.

Anyone Can Learn Big Words

“The intellectual never talks down to his audience, but tries to be as clear as possible; the pseudo talks above his audience to mystify and impress them.” — Sydney Harris, Detroit Free Press, 1981

By now you’ve realized that this pretension irks me. Learning to speak big words does not make you intellectually superior. A two-year-old can be taught to say fairly large words, but they have no concept of the meaning. When someone uses phrases and words that are used purposely to be “above my understanding,” I know it’s for the distinct purpose of undermining and emphasizing my lack of intelligence. But this tactic can backfire on someone who tries to show their intellectual superiority in this way. A good example is when they misuse a big word without realizing it, showing their own ignorance. After that, a simple comment on their comment from an average person with common sense can blow the pseudo-intellectual right out of the water.

“The intellectual recognizes that opposites are not always contradictory, and may indeed reinforce each other; the pseudo paints a picture in black and white, right or wrong, leaving no room for a contrary viewpoint.” — Sydney Harris, Detroit Free Press, 1981

About Sydney Harris

Sydney Harris was an American journalist for Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times. He had a weekly column, “Strictly Personal” which was syndicated in newspapers throughout the United States and Canada. He was also a drama critic, teacher, and lecturer. He passed away in 1986. His columns have been collected into a series of books, one of which is “Pieces of Eight.” It’s available from Amazon on this page. There are others at the end of this story.


PIECES OF EIGHT Hardcover – September 28, 1982

What To Do

In short, be aware that you may come in contact with people who are pseudo-intellectuals. If you are acquainted with someone of this character, and you consider them a friend, tell them how they make you feel. If they’re truly a friend, they will take a look at their actions from your viewpoint. If not, they really weren’t your friend in the first place. Simply grit your teeth and bear it and make it a point to have no more to do with them. But in a gathering, your best defense against a pseudo-intellectual is to remove his or her prey: YOU! Excuse yourself and walk away, even if you have to make up an excuse. For instance, checking to see if your ride has come to pick you up (then don’t come back to the group!) or someone you know across the room you haven’t seen in a long time, then go join another group, reaching out to someone of your same sex as if you’re glad to see them again. It doesn’t matter what you say to them, across the room your smile and handshake will look like the two of you know each other. Or excuse yourself for a visit to the powder room then get lost on the way back and end up in another group. It happens all the time. In any case, you’re better off away from that pseudo-intellectual.

More common sense Sydney J. Harris books for you to choose from.