Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Intelligence as a barrier

"No one wants to push you because you are intimidating."

"I am not intimidating!"

"Intelligence is very intimidating."

These are snippets of a conversation I was having with a friend recently, and obviously I was rather offended/indignant that he would ever describe me as intimidating. I have always thought of myself as rather the opposite of intimidating. Then I remembered a different conversation when I was volunteering with some young women whom I was teaching about creative journaling. The topic had been roadblocks and challenges. One of them said to me, "Surely you don't need all this. You have your whole life together." She was referring to the fact that I am in school for a master's degree, not living at a shelter, and, in her mind, I was as far away from her situation as I could possibly be. We had no common ground. I was the "expert" and the "outsider". I was intimidating because I had education...

I recall a conversation on the same topic during my first-year research methods course, where my professor reminded us that our education would set us apart from the people we serve, especially in their eyes. Education places us in an ivory tower far "above" the regular folk, makes us "experts", and, yes, intimidates them.

Even when we don't want it to.
Even when we wish it didn't.

I have been considered "smart" and "intelligent" my entire life. It is, in fact, a label of self-identification for me. I was an above-average student. My critical thinking skills and my ability to acquire knowledge quickly often got me labelled as a nerd, a geek, a weirdo (labels I absolutely embrace now). I was different because I was smart, and because I was smart I didn't fit in. I learned to be a loner, an introvert, and to pretend that it didn't matter that my classmates didn't want to play with me, or include me. I was smarter. I was going places they weren't... I made myself intimidating so that I didn't have to suffer their rejection. But I did. I suffered it, just like any child would. I suffered rejection because I was different when all I wanted was to fit in, to have friends, to be just like everyone else. 

As an adult, I often find that my intelligence still gets in my way. It pushes away potential relationships and friendships. My inability to think in "simpler" or "common" terms (not my own words, but others') makes it harder for me to communicate with regular people. In my work it makes it hard for me to relate to groups in which I would otherwise belong. It even puts barriers between my family members and me. I am currently one of about five in my family that is able to add a master's degree to my educational experience. While it is a source of pride, it has its drawbacks.  I am often told that I can say something in 20 words when only 5 are necessary. Party games, like Taboo, are difficult, because I can't make it simple. I don't think in simple terms because I don't know how. I don't communicate in simple terms because I don't process information that way.  Whether I like it or not, I am intimidating, even when I try not to be.

This can become a potential hazard in my worklife, because often then populations I serve may not have the same educational background I do, nor do they process information the same way. Over the course of the next few months, I will have to determine how to overcome these barriers presented by a trait I have always admired and prided myself upon.

Ideas and comments are welcome!


  1. Oh, how I identify with this post! I have a J.D. and somehow, people are overly impressed by it, and me as a result. I have a very dear friend who has a high school education. I love being with her and just hanging out together. She often tells my husband that she doesn't understand why I want to be her friend.

    Fortunately at work I have the "geek" label and it is perfectly ok and acceptable. I get teased, but it is in fun. We laugh and joke about my focus and the way I think.

    I am the only one in my family with a doctoral-level education, though my husband's side of the family is highly educated. I know my family members are a bit "in awe" of my accomplishments, but I hope I don't come off as superior. However, I know how you feel in terms of being an outsider.

    I am very lucky with my family and circle of friends, but I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one who sometimes feels this way.

  2. I can certainly identify with how education sets you apart from the people you serve. When I taught in the inner city, parents always used the respectful forms of their various languages for me, but expected me to use the informal manner of address for them. They assumed I was the expert, when often they knew far more about their child then I did. They were always surprised to be asked their opinions at meetings and conferences. It could make it difficult. It is so much easier to work as a team! Thanks for a great post.