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How do I stop being a know-it-all?

How do I stop being a know-it-all?

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, FEB 23, 2009


My boss and boyfriend say I act like I’m omniscient.


Dear Cary:
In the last 12 hours both my boyfriend and my boss have accused me of being a know-it-all (one of them did it politely and gave me a raise, but the other puts up with me a lot more). One of my grad school teachers (again, very politely) said the same thing when giving me my grade in his class.

I feel that I am alienating everyone. That my tendency to open my big, stupid mouth is going to lose me my job, my boyfriend, my school friends: everything! At 27, I guess I am no longer the cute precocious girl who ingratiated herself with adults while her peers hated her. Suddenly there are no more adults, and everyone is my peer.

I grew up in a very small town. There was no bookstore (or record store, or place to buy comics, or place that showed art films). I was lucky enough to have educators for parents, so there were books in my house, and lucky that I lived in the same town as the county library. My high school graduating class had about 200 students, and there were more than 20 girls who either had children or were pregnant when they picked up their diplomas. While growing up, I always figured that if people thought I talked too much or was obnoxious, it was because they just had retrograde politics concerning smart women, or had no interest in hearing liberal or scientific points of view. Now, however, it seems like they may have been right.

I’ve always considered myself to be an autodidact and took great pride in the fact that I went to a great college in a major city (where I live now) and am continuing with a master’s degree. And I feel there are lots of things I don’t know (technical skills, how to speak a foreign language, how to go to a cocktail party without having an anxiety attack) that I suspect I never will, and I regret that. I feel that I know a few things (mostly facts, but I guess a lot of opinions too), but I think most of the people I know, know more than I do. I try to be helpful, or share my opinion or viewpoint, and it just seems to backfire and be a disaster.

I have tried to talk less, but I think better when I talk, but then I ramble on and on. I have tried to talk less in the past, but at some point I just burst and it seems like I talk even more (or in not entirely appropriate places/times/ways).

I just feel awful and don’t know how to change myself or these perceptions of me. Should I see a therapist? (Will someone paid to listen be able to help me learn to talk less?) Should I just take a vow of silence? I just really don’t want people to be mad at me (that sounds pathetic, but every time I erase it, it feels like I am lying).



Dear Know-It-All,

I say take the vow of silence. Dig deep into the silence. Be quiet beyond that point where you feel you are going to burst, beyond the point where you would break in with an ill-timed clarification or “interesting point.” Go beyond, intrepid explorer of silence! Go past that! Work the silence! Work it!

Zip it up big time! Zip it for peace! Zip it for humanity! Zip it for your own soul!

Relax. People don’t have to know how smart you are. Who gives a fuck? Be cool. Relax. Try to be wrong. Yep, just be wrong. Be wrong a lot — but silently! Be wrong but in the secret aura of your own thoughts! Allow yourself the luxury of extravagant error in the vast field of silence you have cleared for yourself!

How does it feel to be wrong? Does it annihilate you? Of course not. So rise up and oppose the tyranny of the need to be right! Tear down the boring oppression of standard test results! What a boring world it is, if filled with timid souls in fear of the next exam! What a boring world it is, if we all carry the same 20 facts about the founding of our nation lest we be deemed illiterate by self-appointed guardians of the nation’s civic probity!

Be wrong, I say! And if you must speak, speak only erroneous facts! Speak only absurdly incorrect facts! Be loudly wrong! Be loudly wrong and quietly right! Be proudly wrong and humbly right! Be out, be proud and wrong! For only in error lies the hope of correction!

Besides, it’s cool to be silent. Nod in the presence of loudmouths. Let the chatterers chat and chatter. Let the mumblers fumble and mumble.

Oh, it’s hard at first, all right. It’s really hard. But once you do it for a while you begin to notice what you are feeling in that urge to speak: You want something from people. You want them not to be mad at you. You want love and acceptance. So ask yourself: Who can give you this? Who is likely to give you the appreciation you crave? Not your boss. Not your boyfriend. It most likely will come from you, your relationship with yourself. Ask yourself this, too: If your vast cistern of esteem were full to bursting, what, then, would you want most desperately? What project would you embark upon? Would you still desire to go about loudly explaining string theory? Or is there something else higher and more noble you would turn to if only this nagging need for approval were not upon you so viciously?

Then turn to that! You have much talent and there is little time! Turn to your most urgent dreams!





  1. Once upon a time (like, back in middle school) I noticed how well people responded when I didn’t make any descriptive or declarative or factual statements, and just asked them curious questions instead… questions about themselves, or about what they were talking about. When I noticed this, I decided to make it a general social philosophy. That approach really made my middle and high school years wonderful, in terms of being appreciated, and in terms of understanding the people around me.

    Just one more riff on Cary’s theme, in case you need some things to try!

  2. Dear KiA,

    Years ago, someone passed a great expression of wisdom to me: “The More We Grow, the Less We Know!”
    As I grew, and developed, I accepted that there are more GRAY areas/viewpoints vs. black and white thinking.

    Cary, I agree with you. Silence is cool. And, sometimes quite mysterious and alluring…for oneself and others. I appreciated your response. It contained wisdom, insight and humor.
    It takes bravery and a sense of humor to be loudly wrong. But, sometimes, it just feels so GOOD!
    KiA, you sound very intelligent. Allow that knowledge to seep into the fiber of yourself…through silence and inner understanding.
    I admire your growing self-awareness Cary summed it up so richly.

    You are about to embark on a different journey, a new learning and communication style. Allow yourself patience and the gift of Self Love…a path to embark for the rest of your life. It takes time to develop true self acceptance. Allow and give patience to yourself and others.

    Have you also considered how you say something to others? The what of it all is not as important as the how, body language, etc. Are you aware of other peoples’ physical comfort zones/spaces?

    When we choose to add silence and listening and neutral observing to our repertoire of communication, so much is discovered. About ourselves and others, too.

    Personally, I don’t feel you need to take some vow of personal silence.
    Do you write or keep a journal?

    Also, a goal is to embrace silence as another modality. And, perhaps take a course in inter-personal communication. Just some ideas.
    Please remember, that you need to develop a style of verbal communication that includes listening to others in perhaps a newer, more open way.

    Something to avoid is to become afraid of verbally expressing yourself.
    Your format is going to grow and develop. And, learning to be silent and listen is a great first step and tool to learn more about you!!
    Accepting that things are rarely black and white…viewpoints, politics recipes, sex…you name it. Staying more neutral within, allows for so much to happen or not! All the best on your new personal quest. It’s worth it. Plus, a little mystery goes a long way! And, being able to laugh and learn is pretty cool, too!!
    Do we really need to take ourselves so seriously?
    SINCERITY is also very valuable for you and the world. You will do Great!!! Best of Everything to YOU!!

  3. I figured out in my 20s that I spent too much time making every conversation about me at work. I thought I was relating to what someone else just said, but in reality I was highjacking the conversations, turning them all in my own direction, and showing people I talked to that I wasn’t really interested in them. So I started asking one question of the other person that showed interest in what they had just said and saying nothing at all about myself, and then I’d refocus on the business at hand and get back to work. People started liking me a lot more. It’s a technique worth trying.

    So good luck to the LW. It’s a great start just being aware of the problem.

  4. I feel for you, LW! I’m a reformed know-it-all who found out that the ability to be silent is awesome! Purely by accident, instead of correcting some self-important idiot, I figured let’s hear it. The result was astounding! Not only did he suddenly calm down, he also ended up doing the task. What a win-win. And, hey, this doesn’t mean you have to shut up all the time, just get to the point of being in charge of your discharge. Practicing silence could be a good beginning for that. Most likely you know a lot and are right a lot. As you’re finding out, that’s not helpful, so I hope you go for it and take Cary’s advice. All the best :)

  5. Cary’ response made me LMAO! at work! too funny!

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