Monthly Archives: January 2014

Your (Friendly) Neighborhood Intellectual

So there have been a flood of “how to relate to introverts” articles being passed around the interwebs, and I thought I would do a search on how to relate to intellectuals. Perhaps I missed something, but I couldn’t find a single one. Now perhaps it’s my weird feeling that I’m neither introverted nor extroverted (I’m just a vert?), but I feel it might be helpful to try and write something along those lines.

I think a lot of this will be just a “how to relate to me” article, but hopefully it will have a more broad application to others who might be wired like me. And to start it all off, I’ll say that intellectuals are weird, in the sense that we aren’t the norm. I think the most obvious thing to point out is that we like to read. And not just that, but we tend to read things that are broadly considered boring or dry. I would rather pick up Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” than I would the “Twilight” books. In fact, it took me until just now to put that picture up there. An “oh yeah, people don’t like to just read text” light bulb moment.

Reading books so much tends to bring other things with it. We live in the world of ideas, and understand that ideas have consequences. As a result of this, we are far more interested in deep conversation than in superficial ones. Questions like “what do you believe and why?” are perfect ways to start conversation, or so we think.

While we’re talking about books and conversation, another thing you’ll tend to notice is that our parlance is rather verbose and antiquated. In other words, we tend to use big words that do nothing but confuse people. We don’t usually do this on purpose, it’s just the type of vocabulary we’re used to seeing in the books we read and the circles of other intellectual people we run in. You might also notice a lot of name dropping when talking about quotes or certain ideas. By name dropping, I mean people that are usually long dead. The reason for this is that it’s a sort of short-hand, among academically minded people that allows you to cover more ground in conversation without having to take the time to do so. This isn’t particularly limited to academic people, as you see it in the world of politics too. T-shirts that say “Reagan Republican” and the like. Now that idea means that the person likes a particular flavor of republican that is different than the type of republican that is present today etc.

Another thing you realize when you start reading more academic, particularly philosophical, books is that words have very particular meanings. Among Christians, it’s popular to hear someone say “don’t be legalistic” , and what they mean is “don’t try and pick apart everything I’m saying”. However, the word legalism has a very particular meaning, and so someone who has read books on the subject will hear that as “don’t try and use works to attain your own salvation.” With miscommunication like that, it’s easy to understand how arguments start, or at least a lot of confusion. Intellectuals tend to lament over the way language is used, and may mistake a lack of proper use of terminology with a lack of understanding the content that is being used. In other words, just because someone doesn’t use the right words, doesn’t mean they don’t understand the truth behind them.

A trait intellectuals share with introverts is a tendency to get straight to deep conversation, forsaking the usual small talk. Many of us don’t enjoy sports, hunting, and fishing, which really limits the casual conversation you’re likely to hear in public (at least in the Midwest, where I am). For example, if you go see a movie with an intellectual, they’re usually fine with talking about the acting or the cinematography, but what they really want to talk about is the message of the movie. What is the writer saying about the topic presented? What are they saying about society?

So what does that all mean? Well, let’s try and sketch out some things that you’re probably going to think, when you meet an intellectual. These might be true, and they might entirely be misconceptions, but either way it will be helpful to get these things in the air, and how you can help intellectuals and maybe what you can learn from them.

All that reading might make them come off as arrogant or judgmental. This could be true or false, but you’ll have to get to know them in order to know which. Intellectuals tend to ask a lot of questions; and while this is, for some, an avenue to air their own opinion, for others, this is simply a way of trying to learn about people and get to the real meat of the conversation (remember, they live in the world of ideas). This can feel really intimidating, especially if you think this person is smarter than you, or judging you constantly. The fact of the matter is that they have learned to detach their ideas from their person, so that they can hold a position and put it out in the open during a debate and have it ripped to shreds, but take no personal offense. For them, a vigorous debate is actually a respectful thing to do, because you’re putting your idea and another persons idea in the fire, in order to get to the truth, and hopefully both people will be the better for it. Within Christianity, this is one application of the iron sharpening iron process.

What we don’t realize is that most people haven’t honed the ability to detach their ideas from their person, and that a debate is usually felt as an attack. This is one way that intellectuals can come across as being unfriendly; always making people feel like they’re being attacked and judged. How you can help: Explain to them how it makes you feel when they talk about something or approach something a certain way. While they may not be able to sympathize well with emotional stuff (hence the term intellectual), they will want to be able to communicate things more clearly. Secondly, help them explain something or do something in a way that is more helpful to you. I have a friend who does this for me, and it’s extremely helpful, as I’m often frustrated with my seeming inability to communicate things.

In terms of helping to communicate, here is something from the other side that you an do to encourage your intellectual friend: engage with them in conversation. This may seem silly and easy but it’s vastly important. Don’t be afraid to tell them you don’t understand what they’re saying/asking because they use words you don’t understand. Having to rephrase what is being said so that it’s understandable is a great thing for us to do, so tell us to! There are, thankfully, a lot of material out there about being able to take complicated information and explain it at a simple level, but there doesn’t tend to be much information going the other way. Granted, our society is geared toward simplicity and superficiality, but we won’t know how we are doing in trying to communicate things if there isn’t any interaction. To take a silly example, look at the way Facebook and social media in general is used. We share cute things, or music, or inspirational sayings all the time, and get an overwhelming response. This is the way things usually go, but intellectual people will never do those things. We tend to ask serious questions and try to get discussion going. Want to make an intellectual’s day? Actually engage with one of their questions! It’s both encouraging to us, and helpful.

Speaking of making our day, you want to know an easy way to engage with an intellectual person? Post an article/video to their wall and ask their opinion of it, and then engage. To us that says, “someone cares!”. Plus, think of it this way: reading is hard, and it only gets harder the older the books get back in time. Intellectual people love reading, and enjoy talking about things they’ve learned from all those big, old books. So if you befriend an intellectual and help them communicate, you’re basically getting the gems from those books without having to sit through 1000 pages of words nobody uses!

That got a bit long, but I hope it was helpful in understanding intellectual people (or at least me!). I know it’s hard, but I hope you put in some hard work and reach out to us, because we need you, and you might just find you need us, too. Different parts of the body, and all that.